Lecture 21: Isaiah and the Suffering Servant | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 21: Isaiah and the Suffering 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 52:13-15. 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, and the idea is that Jesus took our place, in our sin, and in our death, so that we could take his place in his righteousness. There are a couple of illustrations I wanted to give you because these are truths that are so deep that if you do not reflect on them and mull over them, they wouldn’t sink in.

One of the illustrations comes from John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim's Progress. He also wrote his own autobiography called Grace Abounding. Bunyan struggled with sin. He struggled with understanding how, especially since he had sinned so much and the sins he had committed were so bad, how could God possibly forgive him? He tells the story of his reflection on the verse in Romans 3:24. Let me read what John says. "As I was walking up and down in the house as a man in most woeful state, that Word of God took hold of my heart. 'You are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus' (Romans 3:24). But oh, what a turn it made upon me. Now, as I was awakened as out of some troublesome sleep and dream and listening to his heavenly sentence, it was if I had heard it thus expounded to me." In other words, this is how he understood Romans 3:24. It was as if he heard God say to him, "Sinner, you think that because of thy infirmities [because of your sin], I cannot save your soul? Behold, my Son is by me and upon him I look and not on you, and will deal with you according as I am pleased with him." That is substitutionary atonement. That is someone who understands the horrificness of his own sin and what Christ did on the cross, understanding that God is treating you and me in the way that Jesus deserves to be treated, and he treated Jesus on the cross in the way that you and I deserve to be treated. "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." It is not a fact that you can just read and understand off the top of your head, but it is something that takes time and sometimes experience to really drive home.

Three other things I wanted to point out in this section of the Servant Song. The second is the fact that the Servant was going to be rejected by the very people he came to save. Look at the second half of verse 4. "Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted." God just doesn't do things our way, does he? Here we see this Servant and we see him with a giant "L" on his forehead. You all know the song I keep referring to, I'm assuming that you all know this. It is The Loser. Loser is all over his face. And you see that and you reject him, say, "I don't want anything to do with him". And when we look at him, we even get to the point where we say, "It's God punishing him. He is smitten by God. He must be really lousy to be such a loser. Look what God is doing to him." The very Servant of God, rejected by the very people he came to save. And yet he was still wounded for our transgressions. You read the story in the gospel of John about the piercing of his side by the spear and we can talk about the crucifixion. But sometimes I think we really need help to understand what it meant to be wounded for our transgressions.

The last time I went to Israel, I went to an Israeli museum and about 10 years ago they dug up, and to the best of my knowledge this is the first one they have ever found like this, a small coffin and inside the coffin was part of a leg, ankle and foot of a person with a 4-inch iron spike driven right through the ankle. You look at that and you go, "He was wounded for our transgressions". For the 10 years I have taught at a university, four times a semester I taught New Testament Introduction, 30, 40 students in each one. Every time I showed the Jesus Film, the one that Campus Crusade for Christ made. In every single class, in every single year, every single person, from the stereotypical, small, frail coed to the big, tough football player, to the international student who could barely understand English, tears poured from their eyes as they for the first time perhaps, really came to understand what it means that this "loser" was wounded for our transgressions. He was crushed. The weight of your sin and my sin crushed Jesus on the cross. For the first time in all eternity, he was separated from the presence of God the Father because God the Father cannot be in the presence of sin and had to turn his head while God the Son was made to be sin so that you and I can be made the righteousness of God; it was crushing and he finally cries out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" quoting Psalm 22, knowing that Psalm 22 ends in an affirmation of faith and joy. We rejected the very person, the very God that was sent to save.

The third point has to do with the chastisement in verse 5b. "Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace." He brought us peace. He didn't bring us feelings of peace. He didn't make us say, "Well, you can feel good about yourself today and that may be gone tomorrow". He didn't kind of patch us up. My mom has had seven operations in seven years. She is 82. They did patch Mom up, and she is doing okay. But God didn't patch up our souls. He didn't patch us up. He healed us. The chastisement that was upon him brought us peace and we are healed.

The fancy term for this in theological circles is the “sufficiency of the cross.” In one fell swoop Jesus Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, so that no matter how big of a sin you commit, no matter how often I commit my favorite sin, the peace and healing are always within our grasp, because Jesus is always within our grasp. There is nothing that you can do that can push you outside of the scope of the cross, as long as you ask for it. It doesn't matter whether you are a prostitute on Second Street, whether you are a hen-pecking wife that has made your husband's life absolutely miserable, whether you have a hateful husband who has abused verbally, perhaps physically your wife and children. It doesn't matter whether you are a rebellious child, who has done everything you possibly can to make your parents and your sisters and your brothers hate you. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that you can be at peace, that you can be healed, that you can move through hurt and through dysfunction and through pain, to wholeness and to the peace and to spiritual health. And you don't have to go to mass every day and re-crucify Jesus; or as my cousin says, "going to go sacrifice". You don't have to go to purgatory, as if suffering somehow helps Jesus save you. You don't have to knock on doors with the Jehovah's Witnesses; and you don't have to do a lot of religious things with the Baptists. Because you're not the one who brings peace. You're not the one who brings healing. This is not something that you and I do, because it was upon Him that the chastisement was placed. And it was when he was chastised, when Jesus suffered the penalty of our sins, that we could therefore be healed and that we could therefore come to peace with God. We do not help him. We do not deserve it. We are dead apart from Christ. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. But it is all the grace of God, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for me. Not because I deserve it, not because I have done anything to merit it, but because of his mercy and his grace and his love. The chastisement was upon Jesus and therefore we have peace and we have healing.

The fourth point has to do with the universality of human sin. There is a lot in this short stanza, isn't there? The universality of sin is that absolutely everyone has sinned. Isaiah 53:6: "All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to our own way" to his own way. Listen to the pronouns. "And the Lord", Yahweh, "has laid on Him", the Servant, "the iniquities of us all". There is no exception to this rule whatsoever. Every last sheep that God created, you, me, our good friends, our good neighbors, every last person, apart from the work of Jesus Christ in their life, has gone astray, has left the path of God's righteousness and has fallen into sin. There is absolutely no exception to this. Again, it is one of the major themes in the Bible; it is here in Isaiah 53:6. Paul spends about three chapters in the Book of Romans driving this point home, that we all apart from Christ, deserve nothing but hell, because we all apart from Christ, have sinned. And at the end he quotes a bunch of Old Testament passages to drive it home. Here are just a couple of verses: Romans 3, starting at verse 10: "None is righteous, no, not one. No one understands. No one seeks for God. All have turned aside. Together they have become worthless. No one does good, not even one."

Apart from the work of Jesus Christ working in our hearts and drawing us to himself and offering us the free gift of forgiveness, everyone has sinned. You have this marvelous picture in verse 6 of all this ugly, horrific sin; and instead of treating us in the way we deserve, what does God do? He lays on his precious son your sin and my sin. This is grace. This is the best explanation, the best picture of grace I think there is in the entire Bible. God's holiness, enduring the darkness of my sin, for absolutely no reason whatsoever; I do not deserve it. I am not doing anything to help him. But he endures the darkness of my sin for one reason and one reason only, because he has chosen to love us. He has chosen to send his Son, who will become my sin, so that I can become his righteousness. That makes no sense to me at all.

We often cry out, "That's not fair, God", don't we? When things don't go the way we want them to, we say, "Come on, God, step in here and fix this problem. You're not being fair." I'll tell you what is not fair -- Jesus dying for me, that’s what’s not fair. Jesus was made to be sin, who knew no sin, but it is God and it is grace and it is mercy and it is love.

Isaiah continues to the two final stanzas, talking about the humiliation of the Servant and eventually the exaltation. I would encourage you to read them. If you check your cross references, just about every single statement is a prophecy fulfilled by Christ, from being crucified between two wicked thieves, to being buried with the rich Joseph of Arimathea. It is a powerful prophecy of Christ's death and his resurrection.

This is about as clear as the Gospel gets. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than Isaiah says it in the third stanza, because it is as clear as the A, B, C's that we talk about. That if you want to be whole, if you want to be a peace, if you want to be healed, then it starts with A - admitting you are a sinner. It starts by saying, "I am a sheep and I have gone astray and I have turned to my own way." B - to believe that Jesus' death on the cross pays the penalty for that sin. Believing that the Lord has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. Believing that Jesus has born our griefs and carried our sorrows. Believing that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions and he was crushed for our iniquities, and upon Jesus was the chastisement that brought us peace. And with Jesus' stripes, his beatings, I am healed. And then C - commitment. Jesus says, if you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself and daily take up your cross and follow me. Live as one who has died to himself and follow me as a disciple.

At the end of the first service, Rita Clark came up to me and told me a story. She had been in Italy 10 years ago and she had gone to a church somewhere that she said had the most amazing sculpture she said she had ever seen. She said it was a statue of Jesus and it was absolutely so life-like and you could see the indentations in his hands. You could see the effects of being crushed for your sin and mine. She said, "I know I wasn't supposed to touch it, but I reached out and I touched it, and I said, 'I'm sorry I did this to you, I'm sorry'". Then Rita said, "It was if I heard a voice in my head that said, 'It's okay, it's okay'". I said, "Rita, look at Isaiah 53. 'Out of the anguish of his soul, the Servant, he shall see and be satisfied'" That is Isaiah's way of preparing us for Jesus' final words, "It is finished". It is completed. I have done the task that God, my Father, sent me to do. I have become sin so that you now can become right with God. You now can become the righteousness of God. All that we wouldn't understand, what Rita saw, we did this to him. And it's okay, it's okay. That is why he came. On him was the chastisement that brings us peace and brings us healing.

There is no other way to peace and healing. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me". Apart from Jesus Christ, we spend eternity in hell. Peter tells the Jews in Acts 4: "There is salvation in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." This is the only way. Confucius, Buddha, Mary Baker Eddy, none of these people did anything about sin. There is only one Servant and only He carried your burdens. He was a man of grief and sorrow and he became my sin so that I could become the righteous of God. May we understand that in a way that perhaps we never have before.

Reflection Questions

  • 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?
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