When God suffers (Isaiah 53)
Ever since the beginning of the new year, our focus on Sunday mornings has been on how we are able to see Jesus portrayed in the OT. And we have been saying that the key to unlocking the meaning of the OT is to read it in light of the NT. And the reverse is also true: we need to read the OT because it provides the essential backdrop for everything that takes place later in the NT. Because really the whole Bible, right from Gen to Rev, is the story of one person, and that person is Jesus of Nazareth.
And one of the most remarkable pictures we have of Jesus anywhere in the Bible is the one we read a few moments ago from Isaiah 53, which was written about 600 years before he was born.
You may remember a few weeks ago, we already looked at Isaiah 7, where he makes a startling prophetic statement regarding the coming of the future Messiah, the anointed one of God. There he predicted that one day a “virgin would give birth to a son, and he would be called Immanuel,” (which means God with us)
And a couple of chapters later he adds:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (9:6)
And for hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote those words, the people of Israel looked forward eagerly to the day when this child would be born, and the Messiah would come.
But as they read Isaiah’s prophetic words, especially some of the later passages like chap 53, they encountered something that must have been quite puzzling to them, even rather disturbing.
Because they discovered that Isaiah spoke not just of the coming of a victorious Messianic king, but also of one who would become a suffering servant, “a man of sorrows”, who would one day be cruelly rejected by his people, “stricken by God”, and “led like a sheep to the slaughter.”
Now as we read these words today, in hindsight we recognize that this is one of the most remarkable portraits that we have of Jesus in the entire Bible, even tho it was written some 600 years before his birth. And when we come to the NT, we find this passage quoted at least half a dozen times by various writers.
After his resurrection, Jesus says to his disciples: (Luke 24:26-27)
“Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
I’m sure that one of the places that Jesus would have turned to as he explained how he had “to suffer these things” was Isaiah 53.
And in the story we read earlier from Acts 8, when Philip meets the Ethiopian official sitting in his chariot, guess what? He just happens to be reading from this very same passage in Isaiah 53. But he doesn’t understand, and so he asks Philip: “Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about here? Is it himself or someone else?” And so Philip begins with Isaiah 53, as he shares the gospel with this man, and tells him the good news about Jesus.
But as significant as this prophecy was, the fact was that for many of the Jewish people living in Jesus’ day, Isaiah 53 presented some problems for them, because the picture they saw here didn’t fit in with their expectations of what the Messiah would be like when he finally arrived on the scene. Many of the Jewish scholars in Jesus’ day believed that this suffering servant portrayed in Isaiah 53 must surely have been referring to someone else. How could someone who was despised by men, and smitten by God, possibly be the Messiah?
Do you remember how on Palm Sunday, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the crowd greeted him, shouting “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” They were just thrilled by his arrival!
But then what happens? Only a few days later, many of those same people who were cheering for him on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday are now shouting “Crucify him”?
How was that possible? Why the dramatic change?
It was because most of those people saw Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as the fulfillment of the OT prophecies that looked forward to the day when a descendant of King David would appear in Israel as God’s anointed Messiah, and he would reclaim David's throne as King, and restore Israel to its former power and glory.
For eg the well known prophecy in Isa 9:7 “He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” When the people shouted “Hosanna to the son of David” on Palm Sunday, they were acclaiming Jesus as the Messiah king. They were fully expecting that he was arriving in Jerusalem to overthrow the Roman occupiers, & take his rightful place on the throne of David.
But after he was arrested just a few days later by the Sanhedrin, and subjected to public disgrace by the Romans, most of those same people turned against Jesus. How could this man be the Messiah? What they didn’t understand was that while the OT speaks of a king who would one day reign over Israel, it also gives us a very different picture of the Messiah in passages like Isaiah 53.
What is the of image of Jesus that Isaiah presents to us here?
1. We have a picture of Jesus in his humanity, his vulnerability.
v2: "He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground." We might easily have expected that the son of God would come into the world as some kind of Superman figure, invulnerable & all-powerful. But that's not what he chose to do. Instead He came as a helpless, vulnerable child. Born in poverty in a cow stable, growing up in an obscure little village in the middle of nowhere, Jesus chose to share in our human condition. He experienced everything it means to be a human being: He ate as we eat, he walked as we walk, he lived as we live, He wept as we weep, & ultimately he died as we must die.
v4: "He took up our infirmities & carried our sorrows." He took upon himself all the frailties & weaknesses we have to cope with, both physically & emotionally. He was susceptible to disease, to injury, even to sorrow & discouragement
v2 goes on to say "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." In his humanity there was nothing to outwardly distinguish Jesus from any of us. In fact, the Bible never really tells us anything about Jesus' physical appearance, except for these few words right here. We don't really know what Jesus looked like, but we can be pretty certain that he didn't walk around with a halo, as medieval artists used to portrayed him. We might also assume from this verse, that he wasn't even particularly handsome or attractive physically. Rather it was the authority of his teaching, & the miraculous signs that he performed which demonstrated to people there was something unique & special about him.
2. We also have here a beautiful picture of Jesus' love and compassion, in the way that he sacrificed himself for others. Jesus said "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." And what comes thru so clearly all thru this chapter in Isaiah, is the extent of Jesus' suffering. "He was despised & rejected by men... He was oppressed & afflicted... Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him & cause him to suffer... He poured out his life unto death & was numbered with the transgressors"
What was it that caused Jesus to suffer so much? Why did he have to go thru all of this? v5 tells us why: "He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities" What is it saying here? Clearly this, that the suffering that Jesus went thru, the punishment he bore, was really intended for us, but he accepted it in our place. I know that this idea, that Jesus somehow became a substitute for us, can be a problem for many people. Some are offended by the fact that someone else would take responsibility for their mistakes. Others are skeptical as to how one man could pay for another man's sins. How are we to understand this?
During the darkest days of the 2nd World War, hundreds of people were being killed every week in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland. One night it was discovered that a prisoner had escaped from Bunker 14. & when he could not be found, the camp commandant lined everyone up outside, & as punishment, he selected 10 men from the same bunker who would be locked into a jail cell to die a slow death of starvation. One of those 10 men, who was the father of a large family, fell to the ground begging to be spared. The commandant at first refused, until another prisoner standing nearby, who happened to be a Catholic priest named Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward. "I would like to die in place of this man" The commandant reluctantly agreed to spare the first man, and Kolbe was thrown into a tiny cell where weeks later he finally died of starvation.
Those kind of stories touch something within us, because they show a measure of courage & self-sacrifice that is very rare. But that's exactly what Jesus did for you & I. As the thief on the cross observed, we deserved to hang there on the cross, but Jesus took our place, in a way that perhaps we can never completely understand
In v6, Isaiah compares us to sheep, who, left to their own devices, eventually wander away from home, & find themselves lost in the wilderness. In our lost condition, we become estranged from our shepherd. And so in order to bring us back, the Lord allowed his own son, to enter our humanity, & eventually to bear the punishment, that was intended for us. Like the lamb killed during the feast of passover, Jesus became the sacrifice, as the Lord laid on him, all of our iniquity, our sin. And so by his wounds, we were healed. Thru his death, we can now have peace with God
3. Isaiah also shows us the humility with which Jesus accepted this suffering in v7: "He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." Even tho he was completely innocent, even tho he had done nothing to deserve the mistreatment he received, Jesus accepted it without complaint, or resentment. And we read in the gospels, when Jesus stood on trial before the chief priests, & later before Pilate, they were all astonished when he remained silent, & refused to defend himself before them.
The ironic thing was that all of his life, Jesus gave himself for others. His life was the very embodiment of compassion & love & mercy. And yet in the end, he himself was despised & rejected, & ultimately sentenced to a humiliating & painful death. And so when God finally did send his promised son into the world, the world did all it could to destroy him.
How could this have happened? How could the people of Jesus' day not recognize who Jesus really was? Why was it so hard for them to see that Jesus was the one so clearly spoken of by the prophets?
Perhaps another verse from Isaiah helps us to understand this:
Isa 6:9: "'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes."
The tragedy was that peoples' hearts could become so hardened that when the true light was standing right there before them, they couldn't see him for who he was. In fact, John says, they prefered the darkness to the light, & so that's ultimately why they wanted to get rid of him.
But we must ask ourselves: Are we really any different? If Jesus had come today would he have been treated any differently? I doubt it. And so as we look at this picture of Jesus & the way he suffered for us, there are basically only 2 responses that we can have. We can harden our hearts & refuse to accept the sacrifice that Jesus made for us & for our sins. We can say “I have no room for him.”
Or we can open our hearts to him, & say "Lord I see that you are the true light who came into the world. I see how you were pierced for my transgressions you were crushed for my iniquities. Now I turn my heart & my life over to you. I acknowledge you as my savior & crown you Lord of my life
If you have never taken that step, it's my prayer that you might do so this morning. That you would welcome this one that Isaiah speaks of here into your life as your Lord, your Savior.
But even if you don't feel ready to go that far, would you make this commitment with me this morning: that you will begin a quest to find out more about who this JC really is, & that you will not stop until you have enough information to make an informed decision one way or another. Believe me, he is worth checking out.