The Suffering Servant
100 years ago this year, Russia was in throes of its Revolution; about 200 years ago, Britain had just beaten Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo; about 300 years ago, the Act of Union unified England and Scotland; about 400 years ago, the last person to be burned at the stake for heresy in England was executed; about 500 years ago, Martin Luther published his 95 theses, effectively starting the Reformation
500 years is, I think you would agree, a long, long time
It was at least 500 years (some argue 700 years) before Christ’s birth that the verses of Isaiah we have just had read (see below) were written, possibly during the exile of the Israelites to Babylon…a long, long time before Christ was born
A ‘prophecy’ has the connotation in English today of the prediction of future events, but Biblical prophecy is really an insight into the mind of God, which the prophet then declares to the people.
Prophecy gives us clues as to the meaning of something, something that is happening now or something that happens later.
But, sometimes prophecy makes absolutely no sense at all at the time it is delivered.
The suffering servant described by Isaiah would have been a complete mystery, would have appeared completely bizarre, to the Jews in exile in Babylon in 500 years BC.
This character which suddenly pops up in Isaiah 52 would have been a bit of an enigma to them.
The ‘servant’ is described in Isaiah 52:13, the prediction is that he will be ‘wise’; the Hebraic word can mean ‘to be successful’ will be ‘raised and lifted up’ or to occupy supreme dignity. But this is very odd because verse 14 he was disfigured, perhaps a mutilated executed body, unclean for the Jews.
The question which arises is, how can this person who is so mutilated in his life be so exalted after his death? But then verse 15 he will ‘startle’ NRSV (or a better translation ‘sprinkle’ NIV) ‘Sprinkle’ means using the blood on a sacrifice part of the purification ritual in Old Testament times.
So here we have a paradox – the one who appears during his life so unclean turns out to be the one who purifies others.
Chapter 53.1 but the ‘arm of the Lord’ is revealed: God’s strength and power were at work, because nothing: no beauty or majesty, only divine revelation, would draw us to him.
In fact, verse 3, he is despised and rejected by mankind.
But verse 5 he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was laid ‘the punishment that made us whole’, and ‘by his bruises we are healed’.
Then the amazing and familiar, verse 6, ‘all we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him, the iniquity of us all’
This language comes directly from the sacrificial experience of Israel. On the Day of Atonement the priests would take two goats; one they would sacrifice on the altar
to atone for their sins – to propitiate – to set aside – God’s anger and the other, upon which they would ritually lay the sins of the people, would be released into the wilderness – the scapegoat, which, according to their religious practice, would carry the misfortunes, sins and failures of the people away…..
But here in Isaiah it is the suffering servant, a human being, not a goat who is the blighted person who carries the sin of the world away. A human being, although the Bible absolutely forbids human sacrifice. Yet he is not compelled to carry the sin. He does this willingly verse 7, like a lamb led to the slaughter, he does not open his mouth, he raises no objection.
By a perversion of justice, verse 8, he is taken away.
Then, ultimately, verse 9, his grave is made with the wicked, but his tomb is with the rich…
It is clear from verse 10 that it is the Lord’s will that he should suffer and that his life is ‘an offering for sin’.
But then there is a huge reversal, verse 11, he will make many righteous – or justify many – his righteousness is exchanged for their unrighteousness and shall bear their iniquities
Remember, remember this is all written 500 years before Christ’s birth
Who is the suffering servant? Well it just does not seem to be very obscure to me at all.
For Christians, it seems plain as a pikestaff!
It is as if Jesus of Nazareth was fulfilling his part in a script, written about him hundreds of years in advance, but over much of which he could not exercise any control: for example the ‘perversion of justice’ by which he was condemned; the ‘grave with the wicked (the two crucified thieves) but a tomb with the rich’ – Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, in which he was interred after his death.
Indeed, Jesus saw in this prophesy what he would have to do. He saw the significance and meaning of his own life. In Luke 22:37 he quotes from Isaiah 53:12: ‘For I tell you this scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘he was numbered with the transgressors’.
In Mark 10:45 Jesus says: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ and his reference at the Last Supper Mark 14:24 ‘this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many’.
The allusions to this passage drive theologians inexorably to conclude Jesus saw his mission as the Servant of Yahweh, that he predicted that in fulfilment of the role that God had set him. He must suffer and die and that his suffering and death would have a meaning, it was something he was doing for others and that it would have the effect of releasing us from our sins.
Furthermore, his followers had no problem making the connection. Philip the evangelist explains in Acts 8 to the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading Isaiah, that this passage from Isaiah is about Jesus Christ and the resulting conversation concludes in the eunuch’s baptism.
And Peter takes up these themes in 1 Peter. And of course we looked at how St Paul
saw his death in Romans last week….
Jesus achieves a victory at the Cross, over our sinfulness, over the demonic forces behind the idols that we worship. But it causes him agony and death, which he does not deserve.
You see when people say to me ‘I don’t like the idea of an angry God’, it makes me wonder whether they think that this voluntary sacrifice by Jesus, this pain and agony, was unnecessary…
As if God is the nice old uncle who kindly still gives us £5 at Christmas even though we were horrible to him last Christmas….
If God can just forgive our sins, if that forgiveness is cheap, then why did Jesus choose to cast himself in this role of Isaiah’s suffering servant?
And this is really important, because if we see God as a pushover who will just forgive our sins, as Catherine the Great is said to have said on her deathbed, and reviewing the many crimes she had committed ‘God will forgive me, that’s his job’, then we are not worshipping the God of the Bible. We are worshipping some creation of our own invention, we have created some kind of Disney character – an idol to worship and we have not come to terms with, we have not recognised, our own sinfulness.
No. We need to see the seriousness of our sinfulness through the prism of Jesus’ suffering on the Cross.
God Is totally opposed to us when we sin, particularly when we give priority in our lives to other gods above him.
I said last week that it is not too much to describe God’s attitude to us, when we do this as ‘angry’. Not capriciously angry, in the way that we are often angry but in a steady determined and righteous way, resolutely opposed to what we are doing.
As Tom Wright writes: ‘When God looks at sin, what he sees is what a violin maker would see, if the player were to use his lovely creation, as a tennis racquet’.
Sin is not what we have been created for….
But the solution that he adopts to deal with our sinfulness is so astonishing and so stretches the idea of love to limits that we can barely fathom it.
It shows God’s character, to be both resolutely opposed to our sin, angry about it but also astonishingly loving in a self sacrificial way.
God himself, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, comes as the prophesied suffering servant to carry the penalty of our sin.
However opposed he may be to our sin, however angry he might be about it, the God who is willing to endure this pain and suffering for us despite this: that’s a loving God, a self sacrificial God.
And the reason it is necessary, that sin needs to be dealt with in this way, the reason that it cannot just be forgiven, ignored, forgotten, is, as I said last week, because of God’s unchanging character, throughout eternity, because he is a good god of justice, and the universe he has created is ultimately good and just, in eternity.
He cannot simply disregard our sin, like the uncle with the £5 note at Christmas, without compromising his character. In other words if he disregarded our sin, he would not be just…..
As Tim Keller put it in the Lent devotional which some of you have been following ‘If God were only forgiving, but not just, there would be nowhere for us to go when we are sinned against. But God’s holiness will not tolerate injustice.’
Keller points out that all sounds great when we have some injustice done against us, but then we realise, we too are unjust. So unless there is some remedy for us we will be judged the same way as our oppressors…
And what is the remedy? The remedy is Jesus on the Cross. The Divine taking the consequences of our sin and by this God’s anger is ‘propitiated’ deflected from us onto himself.
But the suffering of Jesus on the cross is so great, so total, even for the Son of God to handle, because it is directly proportional to the huge problem that our sin, your sin and mine represents.
There is a cost for our sinfulness. There are consequences for what we do in our lives. The forgiveness that we obtain is not cheap. But the consequences are felt by Jesus;
not by us…..
So we see that the Suffering Servant poem in Isaiah, written at least 500BC, is a window for us into the meaning of Jesus’ death on the Cross.
And we take advantage of what Jesus has done on the Cross, by faith in him. We are, as Paul puts it in Romans ‘justified by faith’ and this essentially means by ‘trusting Jesus’
or to put it another way being ‘in Christ’.
Only when we abandon our idols and stop relying upon them for our future security, repent of them and turn to Jesus to trust in him alone, can we know that we have been forgiven, not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus has done on the Cross and our lives and those around us are transformed
The Suffering Servant
13 See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—
15 so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For he 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,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.