God’s Present- Christ’s Presence: The Suffering Servant
12/19/2016 1:10:53 AM
“God’s Present- Christ’s Presence: The Suffering Servant”
December 18, 2016
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Isaiah 53:1-12
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? What happens when the irresistible force of God’s love meets the immovable object of God’s justice? What we get is the incarnation of God as a human being who then willingly lays down his life as a sin offering for us, an act so astounding and cosmic in scope that God raises him from the dead, the firstfruits of the new Age to Come, the Kingdom (or rule) of God.
This cataclysmic collision between God’s love and God’s justice has always been part of God’s plan, even since before he began creation. God laid out this plan for the creation of redeemed, free-willed creatures who will love him eternally before he even said “Let there be light.” We have been examining God’s prophetic signs, his hints at what he is doing over the course of Advent this year. We have been looking at just a handful of numerous prophecies in the Old Testament that point towards Jesus, the Messiah, the crucified and resurrected saviour whose birth set into motion God’s entry into a fallen world to save it from within.
The passage we are looking at today is Isaiah 53, many verses of which will be familiar to you. In the video clip we watched, it was pointed out that Isaiah 53:6, when shown to a variety of people with different backgrounds, clearly points to Jesus Christ. So much so, in fact, that people assumed these words were written after the resurrection of Jesus. But the fact is they were written 7 or 8 centuries before Christ! As we work through our passage today, we will see a number of verses and lines that clearly find fulfilment in Jesus in very specific ways, but all were written hundreds and hundreds of years before he was even born!
Over the past weeks we have seen how God’s plan was announced in the Garden of Eden, the star was pointed to by Balaam, a pagan prophet, in the book of Numbers, the place of Jesus’ birth was indicated by Micah and now the nature of his death and his atonement are articulated by Isaiah!
Now, we are going to look at an entire chapter together today, and it is an entire chapter of prophecy written in poetic form! So I don’t want us to get lost as we read it together. There are individual lines or verses that are significant, but the whole chapter as a unit is powerful as well. With that in mind, we are going to look at the overall structure of the chapter before we read it together. I hope that by giving the outline of the chapter first it will guide our reading of it and help us to appreciate the whole thing more.
This chapter is part of one of Isaiah’s longer passages about the Suffering Servant. This section is called the “fourth suffering servant song.” It is the suffering servant that is being described and depicted in these verses.
The chapter opens with a question, “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The person speaking, the voice, is that of Isaiah individually, but you will notice there are lots of “our” and “we” words. Isaiah is speaking on behalf of the community of redeemed people. [J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, p. 423 ] It is the redeemed people who have this message, but who also did not believe it on their own until it was revealed to them. The identity of the suffering servant only becomes clear through divine revelation. But understand that as the passage progresses, the “we” and “our” refer to the redeemed community.
The fact of the Servant’s life and suffering are described in v. 1-3 and then explained in v. 4-6. Verses 1-3 describe the humble beginnings of the Servant and that he was rejected by all, including those who now believe. He took “our” (the believing or redeemed community’s) infirmities and sorrow and for our transgressions and iniquities he suffered. Verses 4-6 form the heart of the poem, the revelation that the suffering he experienced is properly ours! [Motyer, p. 424]
Verses 7-9 speak of the servant’s voluntary death and burial. Verses 10-12 explain what his suffering and death accomplished and that it was part of God’s plan. [Motyer, p. 438] Notice in v. 8 a new voice begins to speak: “for the transgressions of my people he was stricken,” then in v. 11 “my righteous servant”
and “I will give him [a reward].” The final verses contain God’s words about the servant and what has happened.
Bearing this overall structure in mind, please read with me Isaiah 53:1-12.
What It Says
So what does this chapter say? Let’s take a closer look at some of the details before going into an explanation. As mentioned before, the passage opens with the question about who has believed and to whom has God revealed the “arm of the Lord”? The arm of the Lord is something that has appeared before in the OT. Deut 7:18-19 in particular describes how God, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, delivered the Israelites from Egypt. In Deuteronomy, it was through the arm of the Lord that the people were saved. Here in Isaiah, the arm itself is being revealed. In previous references, the arm of the Lord was working behind the scenes, now the arm of the Lord has entered the scene directly. And we need to understand that the arm of the Lord is not something apart from God but “is the Lord himself in all his power.” [Motyer, p. 427]
This is part of the mystery which is revealed. How can the one whom people despised and rejected, the one who was unimpressive, but the Lord himself? It is only through God’s revelation that the redeemed community comes to know this for themselves. Fast forward 700+ years from Isaiah and this happens in practice. People struggle to believe that Jesus is the Messiah precisely because he is known to them as “the carpenter’s son” (in Matt 13:55) and they think he is from Nazareth, not Bethlehem (in John 7:42).
Verse 4 speaks of the Servant as a “man of sorrow” but the people who see him mistakenly believe the sorrow is his own. The “we” in this verse stood aloof, assuming the suffering they observed was deserved. But in fact the Servant was heaping upon himself our sin and our need. [Motyer, p. 429] The words in verse 5 are familiar to many of us. The piercing Isaiah speaks of means to pierce fatally. The word “crushed” means “trampled to death.” Our “transgressions” are our wilful rebellion in sin and our “iniquities” are the general twisting or perversion of human nature as a result of the Fall. [Motyer, p. 430]
In contrast to the piercing and crushing, the transgressions and iniquity, are peace and healing. Peace means peace with God and all that is necessary for a person’s whole well-being. It means “fulfilment, living or having lived a full life.” [Motyer, p. 431] I would suggest that this is the real meaning of happiness! Healing refers to restoring a person to completeness and fullness. [Motyer, p. 431] This is the result of the Servant taking our sin upon himself!
As I mentioned before, verses 4-6 form the heart of the poem. Verse 6 uses the image of sheep who have gone astray. The Bible repeatedly speaks of the danger sheep face when they are without a shepherd. [Motyer, p. 431] This is precisely what is meant when sheep go astray- they stray far away from their shepherd! This deliberate straying away from the shepherd is our deliberate sin, our deliberate wandering from and separation from God. This iniquity, this perversion of our human nature, God has laid upon him, the Servant. “By divine act, the Servant was the meeting point for the iniquity of us all.” This is the place, the point, at which the immovable object of God’s justice was met by the irresistible force of God’s love. His love met our sin and the justice our sin demands. The result was the Atonement by which God forgave our sin and opened the door to peace with him. The means was the willing acceptance by the Servant of our sin upon himself.
In spite of the fact that the servant did not deserve to die, he was willing to die. This was not something forced upon him against his will. He did not go to death kicking and screaming, but silently and willingly.
Notice in v 9 “He was assigned a grace with the wicked, and with the rich in his death….” It was unclear in Isaiah’s day how, but the condemned Servant’s death would involve both the wicked and the wealthy. Wealth, in that culture, was usually associated with righteousness. How could a condemned man receive a rich man’s burial? [Motyer, p. 436] Yet here it is in Isaiah’s prophecy. We know, now, about Jesus and how he was crucified between two thieves, yet when he died he was buried in a wealthy man’s tomb. Amazing! Remember, Isaiah was written hundreds and hundreds of years before the death of Christ!
Verse 10 picks up the theme of the Servant’s death being a “guilt offering.” This is taken from Lev 5:15; 7:2 etc. The guilt offering was a ram sacrificed in the place of the guilty person. Verses 10-12 make it clear that the Servant was doing the will of God and that it was the Lord’s will that the Servant take upon himself the sins of others. Thus the Lord will restore and reward the Servant, who will see the light of life and receive a portion or
inheritance among the great. The Lord testifies in these verses that the Servant will bring victory, that his death and identification with sinners was voluntary and that he stands as an intercessor and mediator between sinful people and God.
What It Means
So what does all this mean? We could go further into detail, especially on v10-12, but let’s step back and see what all this means. Hopefully you have already been amazed at the details of Isaiah’s words which fit the life and death of Jesus. Hopefully you can make connections between this passage and the Gospels, or even Hebrews. So what does this chapter mean? What is it saying?
In retrospect, we can all see that Isaiah was speaking of Jesus. But remember, Isaiah was writing long before Jesus was born! In the Jewish mind, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah was not the Messiah. They believed there would be two different people God would send. One, the Messiah, would be a great king and lead the people to military success. The other, the humble Suffering Servant, would bear upon himself the sins of God’s people. It never crossed their minds that they would be one and the same person! And truly, even Isaiah’s prophecy points that out. The opening verse asks who has believed and who has understood except those to whom God has revealed the truth?
In Jesus, the arm of the Lord was physically present with his people. Jesus wasn’t just “sustained” by the arm of the Lord. The arm of the Lord didn’t just work through Jesus. Jesus was the arm of the Lord himself! And remember, the arm of the Lord is a roundabout way of speaking of God himself. Jesus was God, even as described by Isaiah centuries before.
Jesus was characterized by sorrow and grief, but the grief was not over his own sin. It was over the sin of others. And he willingly accepted and brought upon himself the wrath of God that our sin deserves. Verses 7-9 describe the “self-restrained voluntariness” of the Servant’s suffering and death. This was not something inflicted upon him against his will, but something he willing endured for the sake of others. He was not caught up in “a web of events, but masterfully deciding, accepting and submitting,” he took upon himself the penalty of our guilt. [Motyer, p. 432]
And this is the key to his atonement, to his substitution for us. Up until Jesus, all the other substitutionary procedures, all the other substitutionary sacrifices and deaths, held a flaw. They were not willing. The sheep chosen were not willing participants. As a result, they were temporary fixes which pointed forward to the great sacrifice of the Servant.
You see, sin is a combination of failure, moral defect and wilfulness. If sin was merely failure to live up to God’s standards, it could be passed off. “Aw, shucks. I didn’t make it. Maybe the bar was too high.” If sin was merely a moral defect, it would be distressing, but arguably it cannot be helped. We are all born sinful. So if we are born sinful can we really help it? But sin is also wilful rebellion against God. “It is the very heart of our sinfulness that we sin because we want to.” [Motyer, p. 433] And it is this wilful sin, this wilful rebellion and treason against our rightful king that God cannot overlook.
Thus it was crucial that the Servant be a willing participant in the process of paying for our sin. The Servant could not just bear the sins of others and satisfy God’s justice. He had to do so willingly. One could imagine a scenario on which the Servant has all this sin foisted upon him against his will and dying for other people’s sin but not doing it willingly. But God’s justice demands that wilful sin be paid for by a willing, sinless person. The Servant in Isaiah, who turns out to be Jesus of Nazareth, must be a willing substitute for sinful people who himself did not deserve such punishment.
Jesus himself knew this. He repeatedly spoke of his coming suffering, rejection and death. When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus’ next step was to start explaining his rejection by the Jewish leaders and his looming death. He used terms found here in Isaiah 53. Peter’s response was to pull Jesus aside and begin to correct Jesus. This sparked Jesus’ famous rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!” We often miss the fact that sandwiched between Peter’s confession and Jesus’ rebuke are the words of Isaiah 53.
Similarly, at the Last Supper, Jesus speaks of being “numbered amongst the transgressors.” (Luke 22:37) In Luke’s Gospel, “Luke wants his readers to understand Isaiah’s fourth Servant Song (Isa 53) as the hermeneutical key to the narrative of Jesus’ suffering and death.” [David Pao and Eckhard Schnabel, “Luke” in GK Beale and DA Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 385] That is, the key
to understanding the narrative of Jesus’ arrest, trial, scourging, death and resurrection is to read Isaiah 53 and compare it to the events at the end of Jesus’ life!
Why It Matters
So what are we to do with all this? Remember, Isaiah prophesied centuries before Jesus. The fulfilment we see in Jesus is remarkable! Jesus was not famous growing up. He was not a charismatic young man with a following for years. He was not of noble blood. He did not come from power or money. Even his followers did not fully understand or comprehend who he was until after the fact.
Jesus was despised and rejected, not only by the Jewish leaders, but he was even rejected by his disciples when he was arrested! When Jesus was on trial, he barely spoke a word. He refused to speak to the Jewish ruling council until they asked if he was the Messiah. Then he answered “I AM” which is a reference to being God. The Jewish leaders tore their clothes in distress at his presumed blasphemy! Then they took him to Pilate. Again, he barely spoke in his defence. Yet Pilate recognized Jesus was innocent. Even so, against justice, Jesus was convicted and crucified.
When the Romans crucified Jesus, he was hung between two thieves. He was, in the words of Isaiah 53:9, “assigned a grave with the wicked.” But Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Jewish ruling council, petitioned Pilate to take Jesus’ body and bury it in his own tomb. Thus Jesus was with the rich in death! The condemned man experienced the burial of a rich man. Remarkable!
This was all part of God’s plan of salvation for you and me. He had it all mapped out well in advance. He has been planning to redeem you and me since before he even began creation! Our sin is wilful, twisted rebellion against our rightful lord and king. Our sin deserved death. The punishment for treason is death! That is what we deserve. Yet Jesus took upon himself the wrath of God over our rebellion. He willingly took this upon himself, he willingly was pierced and crush for our sin, so that we could be healed and find peace with God.
In theory, God could have dealt with our rebellion by annihilating us at death. He could have just let us cease to exist when we die and that would be punishment. But that was not God’s plan for us. That was not why God chose to make us. God chose to make us in order to have an eternal, loving relationship with us. And in order to do that, he had to both give us free will and do something about our use of free will to rebel against him. He had to give us free will and then redeem us from the sin that would inevitably come from our using our free will against God.
God’s gift to us is the Atonement. God’s gift to us was the solution to our sin that was incredibly costly to himself! God sent his Son to die in our place. What a gift! And not only to save us from eternal punishment for sin, but to restore our relationship with God! If you submit to Christ, you have been redeemed. That is, if you turn away from your treason, away from your rebellion against God, and submit yourself back to his Lordship, trusting in Christ alone to reconcile you to God, then you have been saved.
This is what Christmas is all about. Christmas is the beginning of God’s “end game” against sin. It is the decisive step in the defeat of sin. It marks the invasion of the fallen world by the Holy One with the purpose of redeeming that unholy world and we who have made it so.
Jesus is the gift that takes away our sin, our debt and our guilt. He is the willing substitution for our sin. He is the greatest gift ever given. He is what Christmas is about. And as we prepare to celebrate his birth, we must also remember to anticipate his return. We need to make ourselves ready, through the Holy Spirit, for Christ’s return in power. As we look back at the greatest gift, we must also look forward. Amen.
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