Saturday, 19 May 2007

Isaiah on Jesus the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

Below appears the extended text of a talk I prepared for Lancaster University Christian Union as part of their series, 'The Gospel According to Isaiah'. In the end I cut the text down and so below is the 'unedited cut'! I was given the title 'Isaiah on Jesus the Suffering Servant' for Isaiah 52:13-53:12. I loved preparing the talk and learned loads myself too. What an amazing Saviour we have and how worthy of glory he is!

Since chapter 40 of his prophecy, Isaiah has been offering a word of hope to the people of
Israel in exile. It begins, ‘Comfort, comfort my people’. After judgement comes comfort. And the comfort that God has spoken about is a return from exile, a return to Jerusalem from Babylon for his people. Their judgement is over. Turn to Isaiah 48:20-21, where this is described: ‘Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, ‘The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.’ They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out.’ The people of Judah can celebrate because they will not be abandoned forever – the LORD will redeem his people and bring them home to Jerusalem under the Persian king Cyrus, and that is great news!

However, a problem remains. It was human sin – rebellion and wickedness against God – that caused the people to go into exile in the first place. God has dealt with the result of this problem – he promises to bring them from exile, but the problem of human sin remains. And so verse 22 is a tantalising prophecy: ‘“There is no peace,” says the LORD, “for the wicked.”’ Hand in hand with praise for the greatness of the LORD is a contrast: the destined misery for the wicked. And of course this is not something that can be dealt with merely by geography. There were wicked people in the people of Judah before exile, in exile and when they came back from exile. And so 48:22 shows that God has not finished yet.

In other words, Isaiah’s prophecy from Chapter 40 onwards that there is good news of deliverance is bigger than a return home from captivity under Cyrus from Babylon. God has something greater in mind. There’s a greater ultimate deliverance that the LORD will bring. And he will bring it through a mysterious character known only as his Servant. You saw him introduced last week.

There are several prophecies about the work of the Servant in the book of Isaiah. But today’s passage is both the most famous and the most graphic about what the Servant will achieve. What we will see is that the Servant’s actions illustrate God’s greatest desires and show how God will ultimately fulfil his people’s greatest need.

The passage is split into five stanzas, and we’ll look at these in turn as we consider more about what God is achieving through the actions of his Servant.

52:13-15: The Servant’s suffering makes him worthy of great exaltation

In the first stanza, then, we read that the Servant’s suffering makes him worthy of great exaltation. Let’s re-read 52:13-15:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 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 - so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

The first thing that we learn from this passage is that God’s Servant will be exalted or, to be specific, ‘raised, lifted up and exalted’. This in itself is an incredible thing to claim, because language speaking of exaltation has already been used in the book of Isaiah. Do you remember that during the first week of term, we looked at Isaiah 6, Isaiah’s vision of God? And this is how that vision opens: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted.’ And now this language of exaltation is used to describe God’s Servant. He will be exalted. In other words, God’s Servant is to become nothing less in glory than God.

That’s the first shock of this passage. God’s Servant will somehow be worthy of the same level of glory that the God of the Universe deserves. Think of the glory that he deserves: the one on whom we depend for our every breath! And yet the Servant will be worthy of the same level of glory.

Perhaps more surprising still is verse 14. All of us will be familiar with the ‘before and after’ photos that advertisers use. The ‘before’ picture features a large, overweight person or a bald man or a spotty face. The ‘after’ picture has someone who has lost stones of weight, no longer sullen-looking but happy and trim, or a full head of hair, or perfectly smooth skin. And if the ‘after’ picture of God’s Servant is something more glorious and amazing than anything that we can begin to contemplate, the ‘before’ picture of the Servant is at the other extreme. Look at sorts of words used in verse 14: appalled, disfigured, marred beyond human likeness. Somehow, the abuse and humiliation of God’s Servant will be such that – verse 15 – kings will shut their mouths because of him. In the ancient world, kings were supremely powerful and what they said happened, and yet through the Servant’s suffering, they will be completely overwhelmed by his glory.

Sometimes people receive glory and admiration for their suffering. The famous picture of a blood-drenched Terry Butcher will be familiar to some of you. He played on for England despite incredible personal pain from a head wound for England’s eventual victory a few years ago. More seriously, personal achievements against the odds in the face of illness or disease are celebrated in our media. But what sort of suffering by an individual could make them worthy of the same level of glory as the God of the Universe? For this we need to read on in the poem.

53:1-3: The Servant will be utterly despised by other humans

But before we get to unravelling how the Servant’s suffering leads to him being worthy of such great glory, we need to examine how Isaiah prophesies that things will appear at face value. Far from being considered worthy of great glory, the Servant will be utterly despised. Let’s re-read 53:1-3:

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up like a tender shoot, a 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.

‘Who would believe it?!’ That’s what verse 1 is saying. The arm of the LORD revealed like this! We would have never have dreamt that the arm of the LORD – God’s power and glory – would have been revealed in such a way as will be revealed through his Servant, says Isaiah. We would never dream that God’s power would be shown in such weakness. And Isaiah prophesies that when the Servant arrives, he will not look worthy of such glory.

And so Isaiah prophesies that the Servant will be like a ‘tender shoot’, something vulnerable to wind and birds and insects. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of how the Servant will suffer right from the beginning of his life, suffering just like a root in dry ground. And far from appearing worthy of glory, when the Servant appears, he won’t be conspicuous because of his beauty or majesty. The Servant won’t be good looking, says Isaiah. He won’t have any majesty to attract us to him, in the way that we are magically attracted to the Royal Family, wanting to know all about them. The Servant – well, he will be plain, says Isaiah. He’s the sort of person that, if he walked into the room now, he’d turn no heads through being impressive.

And, says Isaiah, the glory that will rightly belong to the Servant will be surprising as it’s not as if he’ll be everybody’s favourite person. In fact, in verse 3 Isaiah prophesies twice that the Servant will be despised. People will go out of their way to avoid the Servant. He will be completely shunned.

So let’s summarise what we’ve seen so far. Firstly, says Isaiah, a Servant, an individual, will be sent by God and because of his actions will be worthy of the same glory as the God of the Universe. And this will surprise everyone because the Servant is, well, distinctly un-glorious. He’ll be weak and he’ll suffer and he’ll be despised by pretty much everyone. And so, says Isaiah, his ultimate victory and exaltation will come as something of a shock to everyone.

53:4-6: Yet the Servant’s suffering is for us, and brings us peace with God

The third stanza – the middle verse – of this poem brings us right to the heart of this prophecy, because it is here that we begin to see how this enigma of the Servant’s suffering and ultimate glory can be reconciled. Let’s re-read verses 4-6:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Again, we see a juxtaposition here: Isaiah says that the onlooker will look at the Servant and decide that he is ‘stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted’. In other words, the Servant will suffer to such an extent that the onlooker will see his pathetic predicament and come to the conclusion that God was punishing him because of some great sin.

And yet in fact what is happening is sacrifice. The words used here to describe the actions of the Servant would have been very familiar to Jews who lived at the period that Isaiah wrote. The language used here is the same language as that used to describe the sacrifices that God had ordained centuries earlier for the people of God. Sacrifice is a key theme of the Bible; and this is because a holy God – a perfect and pure God – can’t tolerate sin, our evil and rebellion against him. Sin leads to death. And in his mercy, God allowed sacrifice – the death of an animal in the place of a human that deserved to die. An animal took the fate that a human deserved. The animal was the human’s substitute.

In the most important of those sacrificial ceremonies, known as the Day of Atonement, which you can read about later in Leviticus 16, two animals were sacrificed. One of them was burnt as an offering; and the priest laid his hands symbolically on the head of the other animal, known as the scapegoat. The scapegoat was then led out into the wilderness to die. Taken together, these sacrifices showed God’s holiness – that sin leads to death – and God’s mercy: that when the punishment has been taken, nothing else is left to pay. The animal was deliberately left out in the wilderness to die, never to return, to shown symbolically that sin had been dealt with completely.

And now this language of sacrifice is used to describe the Servant’s predicament. Look down at verses 4-6 again. ‘The punishment that brought us peace was upon him’ – just like the sacrificed animal in the Day of Atonement. ‘The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ – just like the priest laid on the scapegoat the iniquity of the people of Israel. Do you see what is going on here? The Servant is going to be a substitutionary sacrifice, just like the animals at the Day of Atonement.

What I am saying is this: to a holy God, a God who is completely just, sin must be punished. He would be unjust if he did not. That’s what the Old Testament sacrificial system shows. But an Old Testament believer would have had a problem. It’s this: the Old Testament Scriptures keep re-iterating again and again that humans are not the same as other animals. So in the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, we read that the only beings made in the image of God are humans. So how could an animal really substitute for a human? A human is more valuable than an animal! It’s true that God promised in the Old Testament that trust placed in God’s provision of animal sacrifices would deal with sin, but they also would have surely kept reminding those making the sacrifices that what they really needed was a human sacrifice for sin, where a perfect human, somehow unblemished by sin, took the punishment of death in the place of other humans. In other words, they needed a perfect human substitute that would take God’s punishment in their place.

And do you see that is exactly what Isaiah is prophesying the Servant will do. ‘He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ We are healed spiritually – made right with God – because the Servant takes the punishment that we deserve. God can’t just forgive sin and magic it away. God is not omnipotent in the sense that he can do anything. God can only do those things which are consistent with his nature. And so can’t readily pardon guilty people, because he has revealed himself as a God of infinite fairness and justice. He is a holy God. He must punish sin. And through sending his Servant, this is what he does. Through sending his Servant, and placing his punishment on him, pouring out all of his wrath against the Servant as he is made sin for others, God has found a way of forgiving guilty people like us whilst remaining holy and pure.

53:7-9: The Servant will voluntarily and willingly suffer death for us

So far we’ve seen, then, that firstly the Servant’s suffering makes him worthy of great exaltation; secondly, that the Servant will be utterly despised by other humans; and thirdly that the Servant’s suffering for us brings us peace with God. But perhaps there’s one issue running through your mind: it sounds pretty harsh of God to crush the Servant. It seems that there’s the Servant, minding his own business, and then suddenly he finds himself crushed by God in a horrific way. God doesn’t exactly seem blameless here himself with all of this violence.

Well, if that’s your thought, then come back to verses 7-9:

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 is silent before her shearers, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgement he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendents? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

These verses make two points: firstly, the Servant’s death was undeserved. We see that especially affirmed in the last sentence – ‘though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.’ But the other thing that these verses stress is that the Servant’s suffering was completely voluntary on his part.

Look back at verse 7. The Servant was ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’ The image here isn’t that the Servant had no choice. That’s sometimes what we can think when we read these verses. A sheep en route to the slaughterhouse doesn’t have much choice if the farmer as decided it must die – is this verse suggesting the Servant had no choice either? No. The emphasis is on the last phrase: ‘so he did not open his mouth.’ The point is this: the Servant would have had every reason to object, to refuse to take the punishment. Verse 8 says that ‘by oppressive and judgement he was taken away’ – in other words, he was condemned without justice. The implication of the verse is that he could have spoken and freed himself from the ordeal he was about to undergo. But he did not. Instead, he remained silent. He did not object. He was calm and submissive as he put himself forward for sacrifice.

Imagine that you are a Jew held in a prisoner of war camp in the Second World War. For some reason there is a skirmish against the Nazi prison officers, and one of these prison officers gets beaten from behind by one of the men in the chambers, who is there with his family who are cowering in the corner. The prison officer gets to his feet and storms out. A few moments later, a whole company of Nazi soldiers enter the room with the beaten prisoner officer. The commander barks instructions explaining that whoever beat their comrade will get shot. But the beaten officer doesn’t know who beat him. Eventually, he comes to a man next to you. He wasn’t involved in the skirmish – in fact, he was trying to calm everyone down. But the prison officer is sure that the innocent man was the one who beat him. And so he is arrested. Everyone expects him to protest. But he looks at the guilty man and his family and bites his tongue. He does not protest. He is voluntarily led out of the room and shot dead.

And that is the picture we have of the Servant here. He voluntarily stays quiet and takes the punishment. We must never think that the Servant had no choice as he faced the punishment of God’s wrath. He knew exactly what was coming, and yet whilst completely innocent of any charge, he willingly and voluntarily sacrificed himself for others.

53:10-12: The Servant is worthy of glory because of his unique death

Onto the final stanza. Perhaps the most shocking of all:

‘Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and to cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 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. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great and will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.’

You know someone's heart when you know their deep desires and what satisfies them. And these verses tell us what God desires and how that desire is achieved by his Servant. Verse 10 puts it this way: ‘It was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’ – more literally, and more shockingly, this verse might be rendered: ‘The LORD was pleased to crush him, putting him to grief.’ What? The LORD of the Universe was pleased to crush the Servant and cause him to suffer? The one true God was happy because of this violent mauling of the Servant? Yes.

Like the prophecy said earlier, we wouldn’t believe it had we not been told it was true. But here we see that God was pleased to crush the Servant. But before we start thinking that there’s a monster at the centre of the Universe, let’s realise that the LORD is only pleased because of what the Servant’s suffering achieved. He hated the action itself. But the Servant’s achievements are described in several ways in this stanza. Firstly – he was a guilt offering: again the language of sacrifice is used. The Servant’s death brings satisfaction for sin for a holy God. But secondly – note – ‘the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.’ In other words, the Servant achieves something that God has planned, that he wants to do, that he desires.

Verse 11 shows what it is that God is out to achieve: to justify many. The point is this: if the Servant has borne the sin of others in his death, then their sin has been punished. And if their sin has been punished, they bear it no more. And if they bear it no more, then they are without guilt before God, and if they are without guilt before God, then they are justified; that is, they are legally acquitted by God and declared righteous. And now we see what God has been up to in this great and awful work of the Servant. He is providing for the acquittal of sinners. We have all sinned and brought shame to the glory of the holy LORD God Almighty! Left to ourselves we will come under his terrible wrath and everlasting judgement. But that is not his desire. His desire is that the Servant should be crushed in the place of many, to bear our iniquities and justify ungodly people like us.

Amazingly, verse 11 points to the resurrection of this Servant. Somehow Isaiah prophesied that the Servant will see ‘the light of life’. And note a very precious thing here: the Servant too will be satisfied. It’s not only the LORD who administered the justice that is happy with the outcome of the Servant’s work. The Servant himself too will ‘be satisfied’. He will be happy with what all of his suffering and humiliation achieved. In fact, he will be delighted with it.

And all of this makes the Servant, just in case we have forgotten, worthy of the same glory as God himself. For he has achieved the will of the LORD, through his humiliation he has met the desire of the LORD: that through his death, he will justify many and bear their iniquities. And so look at the conclusion in verse 12. God says, ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great’ – he will be worthy of worship and praise and glory and adoration and honour and thanks. Yet he will divide the spoils. The Servant’s desire is that he shares his glory with the very people that he has justified, the very ones for whom he suffered, the very ones who mocked him and hid their faces from him and despised him. The Servant satisfies our longings at the cost of his own life: he justifies the ungodly; he makes us part of the family, the offspring, of God; and he shares with us the spoils of universal triumph – the promise of a restored relationship with our Creator forever.


Let me read some verses from Acts 8: the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The Eunuch is reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah as he travels home from Jerusalem.

Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.

"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:
"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth."

The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

The incredible news of the New Testament is that the Servant has come! Jesus of Nazareth is the Servant. And he is not only the Servant, but the Son of God, God in human form, who fulfilled the prophecy we read about in Isaiah 53: the incredible news that people can be made right through his death on the cross in our place, taking the wrath of God the Father against sin. It is Jesus’ death on the cross – and his death alone – that can justify us, and can legally acquit us before God. It is that which makes Jesus worthy of glory and honour and praise; because he was slain.

Many of us here will not be hearing this truth for the first time. We’ll be used to the idea that Jesus bore the anger of God the Father against our sin on the cross. But let’s not skip over this. Let’s think about what the cross reveals. It reveals God the Father’s heart – who desired to crush the Son – not because he enjoyed it, but in order to bring many back to him. And the Son, the Servant, is glad about this. Jesus is not resentful at God the Father for sending him to the cross. In fact, as Isaiah prophesies, he sees the good pleasure of the Lord succeeding through his own anguish and is satisfied – not frustrated or bitter – but satisfied. And so if you want to know the heart of God and the heart of his Servant Jesus, look at the cross. It is there that we see God as he really is: holy and just – sin must be punished, even if it means the tortuous death of Christ – and yet loving: delighting to go to the cross and delighting to punish in order to justify sinners like us. This is no wishy-washy or nostalgic love. This is incredible, breathtaking love – love shown in an incredible action: one that we would not have believed if it was not written in front of us.

And we need to be reminded of these truths. Many in the world hate the cross of Christ. They hate what it says about sin and the fact that it must be punished. Richard Dawkins spoke of the cross of Christ as ‘vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent’. Even some of those from within the church can struggle with the Biblical teaching about the cross. One writer recently described the idea of God the Father punishing the Son for our sin as being akin to ‘cosmic child abuse’. And yet what we’ve seen the cross reveals tonight is a God of love: not of sentimental love, but of a real love, a love that has met our deepest need. A God who has found a way of justifying guilty people like us and not condemning us all to hell. God’s response to our guilt isn’t to say that it doesn’t matter, but to sacrificially pay the price necessary that we might be forgiven through his sacrifice. And this is incredibly humbling, it’s an incredible to our pride, but just think about the God that all this reveals.

One final word. And that’s to any here who any who haven’t yet personally placed their trust in Jesus. Isaiah 53 is incredibly humbling. It’s humbling because this passage shows that there is nothing that we can do to justify ourselves. There’s nothing that we can do to make ourselves right with God. And yet there is great liberty in what we read too. Although there’s nothing we can do, if we humble ourselves, we can receive the great blessings of what the Servant, Jesus Christ, suffered for us. And so tonight, will you come clean? Will you admit that you deserve God’s judgement, God’s hell, like all of us? Will you admit that the solutions you trust in – good deeds or religious activity or anything else – won’t work? Can you see how serious the problem of sin and God’s wrath against it is? Can you see the danger you are in? Then humble yourself and realise that God has done everything you need to have a restored relationship with him. He has taken the punishment for your rebellion against him onto himself so that you might be forgiven. That is why Jesus came.

Let me close with a quote from the Christian writer John Stott:

As I look at the cross I cannot tell which is more apparent – the relentless antagonism of God against our sin and rebellion, or the inextinguishable love of God towards guilty sinners. Both are fully satisfied at the cross. God has done everything necessary for my forgiveness. What then is there left for me to do? Nothing – except to acknowledge my rebellion against God, turn from it, and receive Jesus Christ into my life as my Saviour, committing myself personally to him, and asking God to take my sins away.

Let’s pray.


Matthew McMurray said...

Thank you very much for inviting me to read this.

I found it quite interesting to read (in the completely literal and non-patronizing sense of the word). I particularly liked your link to Isaiah 6 and your comparison of the Servant and the all-holy Lord Almighty. It was a very clear, and very well thought out exposition on what Jesus, the Servant, did for us.

I don’t have any problem with anything you said. I know I said somewhere that I don’t believe in penal substitution but that might have been misleading. I do believe that in Jesus my sins can be forgiven and that it is only through Jesus that I can come to God. My theology is probably best and most closely summed up as Christus Victor, however, the more I reflect the more I realize that a satisfactory theory of the atonement must take into account something of all the theories. Jesus paid the price for our sins and thus we are redeemed and Jesus claimed the victory over sin and death with his death and subsequent resurrection, and at the root of all this was the love of God: the love that moved God to provide the sacrifice, and the love that willed that we could be saved.

I think that the problem I have is more what kind of preaching comes from a certain idea or doctrine, and where the emphasis lies. The emphasis of somebody who believes in penal substitution can sometimes be sin, guilt and wrath. The emphasis of somebody who believes in Christus Victor might be more that Christ has claimed the victory over sin and death and in him we can share in that victory. Somebody who believes that it is all completely because of love (especially if that becomes the kind of sentimental love you described before) might be tempted to say that sin doesn’t matter (which to Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics alike is unacceptable). I think that if we combine all of these options, we get somewhere near to the real meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The other aspect of things that I struggle is how you present these things to other people and how you encourage people to turn to Jesus. You said, ‘Will you admit that you deserve God’s judgement, God’s hell, like all of us?’ To me, if I was given the same subject, I wouldn’t have put things in those terms. However, that might have more to do with my almost obsessive desire not to offend. I suppose that I might have said, ‘Will you accept the freedom that Christ offers? Will you accept the forgiveness that the Father offers in Christ? Will you accept the Spirit to help and guide you as you seek to turn from sin and live a life that pleases God?’ or perhaps just, ‘Will you accept the forgiveness offered through Christ’s death on the cross?’

I don’t mean that as a criticism but rather as a reflection of what you said and how I might have given a talk on that same passage. I enjoyed reading what you wrote and it did indeed add a lot of fresh thought on Isaiah 52-53. Thank you again for allowing me to read it.

I think I will put a link to it on my blog and post this response too, if you don’t mind.

Matthew McMurray said...

Oh, and anyone who uses the word 'juxtaposition' in a sermon gets my vote!