Lecture 21: Isaiah and the Suffering Servant
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Isaiah 52–53 give us one of the most exact and theologically helpful looks into the death of Christ. Isaiah prophecies about a servant who was to come, whom God would punish for our sins. This, of course, is a prophecy about Jesus. Here we learn that there is no sin God cannot forgive, and that peace comes not from within ourselves but from outside, from God.
I. Exaltation of the Servant
II. Humiliation of the Servant
III. Work of the Servant
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: Isaiah and the Suffering Servant
Introduction: A Special Promise
There is a promise that weaves its way all the way through the Old Testament. It is a promise that there will be an individual in the future who will come and be our Savior. This promise starts in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:15 when God pronounces the curse on the snake, he says that Eve is going to have a descendant and that descendant will bruise the serpent's head. In other words, one of Eve’s descendants will crush Satan, will kill Satan. This thread of special promise runs all the way through in the Old Testament. But this promise comes to the forefront in the book of Isaiah. Near the end of the book there are four prophecies of a person in the future whom God calls “my servant." Yet we will see that people are going to reject him and bring him suffering, so we use the term “Suffering Servant” for this person in Isaiah. There are four times in the book of Isaiah that the suffering servant is discussed, but the fourth is the most significant of all the passages and that’s the one I want to look at this morning. It is Isaiah chapter 52 starting at verse 13 and goes to the end of chapter 53.
Gospel in the Old Testament
This is hands down the most quoted passage from the Old Testament in the New Testament. It has earned the name “the gospel in the Old Testament” because of its clarity and significance. If you spend the time to go through your cross references. you will find that almost every single verse is actually a prophecy that 700 years later was fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is one of those passage in your Bible that every single word is underlined and highlighted after you read it once. The Servant Psalm, the fourth one, breaks into five stanzas. I am going to concentrate this morning on the third, but before that I want to walk us into the psalm.
Exaltation of the Servant
So the first of the five stanzas is in Isaiah 52:3-15. Isaiah is introducing us to the servant by discussing his exaltation, who he is. He says, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you [speaking to the Servant]--his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind--so shall he sprinkle many nations [(in the ESV you need to follow the dashes to make sense of that sentence. Many were astonished and also many will be sprinkled; many will be forgiven of their sins.)] kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which ahs not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Isaiah starts this passage on the suffering servant by emphasizing his exaltation and does it in language that is reminiscent of Isaiah 6, “My servant shall act wisely. He shall be high and lifted up.” Then he emphasizes the exalted, the wonderful, the majestic nature of the servant and he does it by contrasting it with his humiliation, his lowliness.
Humiliation of the Servant
This is a theme that is introduced in verse 14. Evidently the weight of Jesus’ ministry, especially on the cross, had an effect on his appearance and he “was marred beyond human resemblance.” Later on in 53:2 Isaiah says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” In other words, Isaiah is telling them that people will not expect great things when they look at the servant. The servant will be the guy that has a big “L” written on his forehead for “loser.” He will be the last player you would pick for teams. Yet what appears to you to be so humble and so lowly, the worse player you could possibly have on your team, it turns out that he’s the Exalted One who will dominant the game. He is going to be high and lifted up because God is going to exalt him. This is the same kind of contrast between Christ humility and his exaltation that we read in Philippians 2, again another one of those passages that needs to be highlighted in your Bible. Paul is talking to the Philippian church about Christ and he starts in chapter 2:6 by saying, “Though he was in the form of God [referring to the servant, Jesus], he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is the giant loser; this is the big “L” on the forehead, the last guy you would pick for your team. But because of what Christ did on the cross, see how verse 9 starts, “Therefore [because of his humiliation] God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So you have at the beginning of this Servant passage the statement of his exaltation contrasted with the fact of his humiliation, that from the human standpoint he looks like a loser. That is what he goes on to talk about in the second stanza, the humiliation. Isaiah says, “Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed.” In other words, is the prophet crying out, “Is anybody listening to me? Does anyone believe anything that I’m saying? I know that its hard to believe, given his humiliation.” “For he [the servant] grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” On the one hand you have God’s estimation of the servant, that he’s high and lifted up and on the second hand you have the human estimation; that he is a loser. There is no natural reason to be attracted to him and, in fact, people will recoil from him. They will turn away from him because He is too full of sorrow, too full of grief. “I don’t want anything to do with him. In fact, I don’t even want to look at him.”
Work of the Servant
The first two stanzas set the stage for the third stanza, which is in the middle of the prophecy. (That is often where the heart of prophecies are put, right in the middle.) Isaiah 53:4-6 is the third stanza. As I read this passage, please pay really close attention to the pronouns. It is very important that you notice the shifting back and forth. Isaiah 53:4-6 “Surely he [the servant, Jesus] has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” A marvelous passage in Isaiah, the gospel in the Old Testament. There are many themes that I could talk about from these three verses, but I will only emphasize one: what does it mean in verse 4 when it says that the servant bore our griefs and carried our sorrows? What does that language mean? This is language that we are familiar with. We often talk about that Jesus was punished for our sins, which is certainly true. I committed a sin and Jesus was punished for what I did. And yet as you go through Isaiah and especially as you go into the New Testament, you will find that there is much more to it then simply being punished for our sins. Perhaps the most important verse on this topic in the entire Bible is 2 Corinthians 5:21. If this is not highlighted in your Bible it must be; it is a crucial verse if we are going to understand what happened on the cross. I am going to read it and substitute antecedents for pronouns. Paul tells the Corinthians: “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God.” That although Jesus never sinned, God made him sin to be sin so that you and I who are sinful could be made the righteousness of God. It is not so much that Jesus died in our place, though that is certainly true, but it is that he sinned in our place. And so when Jesus hung on the cross and for the first time in all eternity separated from the presence of God the Father, He, in God’s mercy, grace, love and justice saw Jesus who had committed sin and therefore when Jesus hung on the cross he had committed Bill Mounce’s sin. He sinned in our place and therefore he was punished for that sin. The flip side of that is marvelous because it is not that you and I are somehow treated as if we were righteous; but that we are actually made righteous. That we in a sense partake in the character of God and it is Jesus’ righteousness that we now possess. It is not as if Bill Mounce is righteous. Bill Mounce is righteous because Jesus is righteous. That is what it means in its fullest sense when Isaiah says he has borne our griefs and he has carried our sorrows. The technical term in theological circles for all this is the “atonement.” What happened on the cross. What did Christ’s sacrifice accomplish? And we often talk about substitutionary atonement.
- What was the main point of the sermon today?
- It is helpful to check your cross references and see how Jesus fulfilled every verse in the Servant passages. How do you think your friends would respond to the claim that 700 years before Jesus died, Isaiah saw it?
- What are some ways in which the exaltation of Jesus is made even greater when compared to his humiliation? What specific events in the New Testament may make this clearer for you? For me, it is being beaten by the soldiers before the crucifixion.
- Can you think of any other ways to help understand what it means that Jesus died “for” my sins?
- Without becoming morbid, how can you help yourself and others understand the horribleness of Jesus being “crushed” for our sins?
- Do you know of any stories of people who think their past sins were so bad that God could not forgive them? Have you ever done the same sin over and over to the point that you give up asking for forgiveness?
- What are ways in which people try to pay the penalty for their own sins? How can you help them see that God’s chastisement was laid on Jesus, not them, and that Jesus became their sin?