The Suffering Servant

This was originally a sermon given at RTS Atlanta. 

Think back and remember how Christ was first revealed to you. Maybe it was through a friend, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, your mom. Maybe it was through reading the Bible. Maybe it was all of these and then finally Jesus had your attention. Christ reveals himself to us in many different ways, but all for the same purpose, to show us that He is our Savior and Lord.

Now, look at this passage (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) and think about how Christ was revealed to Isaiah. This is the most vivid picture of Jesus in the Old Testament and maybe the entire Bible. Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant takes us through the story of the cross 700 years before it happened.

This is a prophetic message by Isaiah, but throughout chapter 53, he uses the past tense, as if this event has already happened. What must Isaiah have been thinking when he received this vision? Did he need explanation given to him, like the Ethiopian Eunuch needed Philip to explain this passage to him in Acts 8 or how Jesus likely expounded this passage to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24?

First, this vision is not isolated to this particular chapter of Isaiah. This is what has come to be known as the fourth servant song. The first servant song is in chapter 42, as God describes the character of the servant with “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” Isaiah then writes about the prophetic and the kingly office of the servant, before finally describing the priestly office here in this chapter.

The first point I want you to notice here in this passage is the exaltation of Christ. You’ll see the exaltation of Christ here at the beginning of the passage and again at the end. V. 13 “he shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted.” Chapter 53 is famous for its prophecy of the Messiah, but to understand it we have to start at the end of chapter 52. Most of this passage from the end of chapter 52 until the end of chapter 53 is dealing with the humiliation of Christ.

But, to understand the humiliation of Christ, you have to understand the exaltation of Christ. The first part of v. 13 talks about the servant acting wisely or it is sometimes translated “my servant shall prosper.” Right off the bat, the mission of Christ cannot fail and will not fail. This is both a message to the people of Isaiah’s day, who wanted to know when they would get out of exile and return to the glory of Israel and our day, we want to know does God care about me, has he forgotten me, where is God, maybe there is no God? Israel was asking the same questions back in chapter 49. But, God answers, in 49:13, “For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.” The mission of God is Christ and he will not fail, he shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted. This mission at the outset of this passage is clear and resolute.

God is there, he does care, he so loves the world that he sent his Son and this is what his Son will do. Christ died for us, for you, for me. It's probable that the disciples when seeing Jesus die on the cross thought that the mission had failed and so they scattered. They likely forgot this promise here in Isaiah 52:13.

It's possible that you have misunderstood this verse. We might think that the exaltation of the servant, of the Messiah, of Jesus, has to do with his resurrection, his ascension, his reign at the right hand of the Father, his coming again in judgment. There are elements of that within this exaltation, but as one commentator points out this is not Isaiah’s purpose. The point is the same point that John makes in John 3:31 “he who comes from above is above all.” The only one who is worthy to save God’s people from their sins, from their exile, from their darkness and lack of belief is the exalted one. He is the only one who is worthy. This is who Jesus is. He is exalted through suffering.

Christ is exalted through suffering. Here we find Christ’s humiliation. Isaiah jumps right into suffering in the next verse and continues on that track for the next 12 verses or so. This verse is unbearable to think about (Isaiah 52:14). Alec Motyer comments that the astonishment doesn’t come so much from the questioning, is this the servant? But, is this human? Let’s pause here and think about what Jesus went through for us. The cross was horrible for Jesus, like any other man, but he is described here as being unrecognizable.

Do you believe that Christ became so disfigured, almost inhuman, in order to bring you restoration, to actually make you into the human the God wants you to be?

Will you be saved? The only question that needs to be answered there is have you believed? (Isaiah 53:1) Then, without directly asking, Isaiah describing the servant says, have you believed in this one? Who is he? He is a suffering servant. The life of Jesus is full of suffering.

Isaiah 53:2-3 describes the Messiah as nobody special, at least by appearance. This doesn’t mean that Jesus was ugly or really describing what he looked like, but his appearance is part of why people misjudge him.

Remember in Mark 6 when the people of Nazareth say, “isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” As if to say, what can he do? Or other times when people say, “can anything good come out of Nazareth.” Jesus? He’s just a guy who builds tables. But, now he’s claiming to be the Messiah. What a nut! He was rejected. John talks about this in John 1:11 “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

Imagine the suffering that Jesus goes through when his own family and friends reject him in Nazareth. Then, to know that you are the Messiah, the one whom will save Israel and Israel rejects you. Jesus knew he would be rejected and knew he had to suffer, but it's one thing to know you’re going to suffer and then another to actually suffer. It actually hurts. There is real pain. He was acquainted with grief. He was despised.

Going back to the main point here. Why was he rejected and despised? It wasn’t for his own sins, but ours. Not only did he suffer on the cross for our sins, but he suffered his whole life, not sinning once, not giving into temptation once. Even that is suffering. We give into temptation all the time. It is sin to do that, but its also relief. Jesus never got that relief, because he never sinned once. He was truly God, but that is not why he never sinned. He was truly man and lived the perfect life in his active obedience.

Sometimes the next verse (Isaiah 53:4) is translated as carrying our sicknesses and diseases. My mother tells this story about when my father’s father, my grandfather was in the hospital suffering from cancer. My mother’s mother came to visit and proclaimed that God would instantly heal him because of what it says in this verse.

Now, there is an element of Christ carrying diseases, healing people, the blind, the sick, the lame. But, the point is that Jesus in suffering will cure the agent of disease, which is Sin. There is no sin in heaven, therefore there is no sickness. Isaiah 53:5-6 is the main point of what Isaiah is trying to drive home here and what I am trying to drive home here is that Christ died for sinners.

This is all over the New Testament, Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” 1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ suffered once for sins the righteous for the unrighteous.” 1 Timothy 1:15 “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” says Paul. Christ died for sinners. The amazing thing about that is here is the most vivid description of Christ dying, the purpose and the result.

Isaiah 53:7-8 is an extraordinary prophecy. He opened not his mouth. This doesn’t mean he didn’t say anything. It means he did not protest. Jesus never said, "This isn’t fair or stop!" He takes the punishment for you and me. The punishment we deserved. 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He wasn’t suffering for his own sins, but for our sins. And in that he is exalted.

People looking at Jesus dying on the cross or the unbeliever might think its too bad that such a good man had to die. What a tragedy! This was no tragedy. Isaiah 53:4 says he was “smitten by God”. Isaiah 53:6 “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53:10 “it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.”

From the outside perspective this is a tragedy, from the inside and right perspective this is as Peter says in Acts, That Jesus was put to death by “The deliberate plan and foreknowledge of God.” This was no tragedy, this was God’s plan. And God’s plan does not fail.

Some amazing prophecy in Isaiah 53:9. This was Joseph of Arimathea taking the body of Jesus and laying it in a tomb where no had been laid in John 19.

So, what is the end result of Christ’s death for sinners like you and me? As I said at the beginning the mission of God will not fail. And so, at the end of v. 10, “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” And in Isaiah 53:11 "Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities."

So, God’s plan is accomplished by Christ. So, he says on the cross. It is finished! (John 19:30) All that is needed for your salvation has been accomplished by Christ’s death on the cross. That is the reason you should trust God with your life because your life is bound up in the death of Jesus Christ. "We preach Christ crucified," says Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23).

As we get close to Easter next week, it’s wonderful to say here that Jesus did not stay dead. But he is raised on the third day and ascends up into heaven and reigns at the right hand of the Father. He is interceding for you right now. At the end of Isaiah 53:12, as we complete this passage, Isaiah says, “yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

He stood in my place. He stood in your place and took the penalty that was our due on the cross. He continually intercedes for us, as our representative before God. So, you can say before God, I am righteous, not in myself, but in Christ because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors. Though I am a sinner, though I am unholy, Jesus, the Holy One, took my sin and defeated death for me on the cross. Do you believe this? The message of the gospel is simple as Paul says to the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. 

Reference: Young, Edward J. 1969. The Book of Isaiah. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Motyer, J. Alec. 1993. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press. Childs, Brevard S. 2001. Isaiah. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: With Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit Morphology; Bible. O.T. Hebrew. Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit. (2006). (Is 52:13-53:12). Logos Bible Software. n.d. Logos Biblical Software.