Date: 16 Oct 2016
Text: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
This morning I’m starting a new short series of sermons on the significance and meaning of the Cross for our faith. Unfortunately the series will be interrupted by a couple of other events that are on the horizon but by the time I have covered some of the planned sermons, it will be Advent!
During these four sermons I want us to consider various aspects of the importance of the Cross and what it means to us as believers in Jesus Christ. The Cross has become a powerful symbol of the Christian faith; in fact, I stand in front of a Cross each week and to my left is a Cross that is even taller than me! The Cross is a very powerful emblem and a reminder to us all of how Jesus was basically brutally murdered by His opponents. Whilst some of the sermons following this one will look at New Testament passages, this morning I want to look at what is probably one of the more famous passages relating to the crucifixion – the closing verses of Isaiah 52 together with all of Isaiah 53.
I’ve titled this sermon Man of Sorrows which is a phrase used in 53:3 of the original version of the NIV as well as the NLT and ESV translations. However, the version that we are looking at uses the phrase “man of suffering” which probably sums up in a better way what the chapter is all about.
There are three main aspects that I want us to think about this morning both of which centre on Jesus. Firstly, we will think about Jesus as a servant, secondly, we will consider the suffering that Jesus endured on our behalf, and finally as why He had to suffer.
Isaiah, as I’m sure we all know by now, was a prophet chosen by God to speak to His chosen people and this particular chapter is a prophecy regarding the coming Messiah Who we know as Jesus. Whilst it was written some 700 years before the crucifixion and resurrection took place, it is 100% accurate on how Jesus would become the ultimate sacrifice by being punished for the sins of many; He would suffer for God’s people; and yet, in the end He would triumph and be “lifted up and highly exalted” (52:13).
This prophecy was originally written for the Jewish people with the intention of leading them to recognise Jesus as the Messiah and yet they failed to see Jesus in Isaiah’s prophecy; they also failed to see or accept that Jesus was the Messiah. God knew that that would happen which is why Isaiah recorded God’s words in Isaiah 49:6b when he wrote, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”.
The Wise Servant
The first abiding image from these verses is that of a servant, someone who serves faithfully and uncomplainingly. That servant was Jesus Who came to earth as an ordinary and humble human being to serve both God and His people. The opening words in this passage, start in a gentle and sublime way, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.” (52:13). That’s quite an opening given that servants generally stay in the background and quite often have little hope of progressing from being a servant. And yet, this was a special servant, this was Jesus of Whom Isaiah was talking. Despite all that was to happen and all that we will consider in these verses, Jesus triumphed in the end and is highly exalted; after all He now sits at the right hand of God in heaven.
Although Isaiah refers to the servant in both 52:13 and 53:3, we actually see an early reference to Him in Isaiah 42:1 where God introduces Him. Isaiah wrote this, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” This servant is undoubtedly Jesus, God’s Son; the One He chose to send to earth to bring justice to the entire world. Note that God says “I will put my Spirit on him” something that was fulfilled when Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. We can read in Matthew 3:16-17 that, “As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’" God’s intention was that His chosen servant would first of all bring the good news of the coming kingdom of God to Israel. Although in Isaiah 49:6 the servant is addressed as Israel, this was Jesus and His first actual mission field was to be Israel itself, and then the entire world which obviously included Gentiles.
I’ll come back to 52:14 shortly and move on to 52:15 where we see the way in which the servant will triumph in the end. At the beginning of 52:15 Isaiah writes, “He will sprinkle many nations”. Some translations use the word “startles” rather than the better word “sprinkles” which is much the more accurate translation from the original Hebrew. Under Jewish Law for sin to be forgiven a sacrifice was required and blood had to be shed. The animal used for the sacrifice was always perfect, without spot or blemish, and the blood of that animal would be sprinkled over the altar and the people as part of the process of forgiveness. In Exodus 24:8 we see Moses doing exactly that. After the sacrifice had been made, he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people saying to them, "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." What Isaiah is telling us here in 52:15 is that the servant, Jesus, would metaphorically “sprinkle many nations” with His own blood as part of their being forgiven their sins. We are also told that even Kings would “stand speechless in his presence” (52:15 NLT) such would be the way He was to be exalted. Isaiah explains in 52:15 that at the time the servant is exalted those who hadn’t been told about Jesus would now see Him and understand Him. The Message puts it this way, “what was unheard of they'll see with their own eyes, what was unthinkable they'll have right before them”. I suspect that what Isaiah is telling us is that eventually the gospel of Jesus Christ will be preached and taught in the whole world. At that time “the mystery hidden for long ages past” that Paul talks of in Romans 16:25b; will be revealed and all those who have not heard of Jesus will hear of Him and come to know Him. Paul leaves us in no doubt that this revelation will be in accordance with what the prophets, including Isaiah, wrote hundreds of years earlier.
When we get to 53:3 we learn more about this servant. The NIV simply says “He grew up” whereas the NLT leaves us in no doubt who this is by beginning the verse with the words “My servant grew up”. I love the descriptions that Isaiah uses: “tender shoot” and “root out of dry ground”. They give us a picture of someone young growing up and facing the same struggles that everyone else faces. We may also see a picture of a “tender shoot” that is seemingly weak and insignificant rather than the opposite picture of a mighty tree that the people may have expected the Messiah to resemble. We also learn that there was nothing special about him that attracted us to him. Just look at the world today; there is an obsession with good looks, with being physically perfect. The appearance of everyone who appears in the public limelight is dissected in minute detail before they are deemed to be “attractive”. This didn’t happen with Jesus. As an ordinary human being there was nothing special about Him; people would pass Him in the street rather than stop and do a double take when they realised Who had just walked past them. Despite this seeming lack of attractiveness, this was Jesus, the servant sent to save the world.
The Suffering Servant
In those few verses we have met the servant whom God sent to save the world. He came to forgive the nations of the world for their sins and yet there was nothing about Him that attracted us to Him. That view of the wise and exalted servant doesn’t last long though as we now move on to view the picture of the suffering servant.
In 52:14 we read that many “were appalled at him”. Why would that be? Well, Isaiah writes that “his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being” and in doing so is beginning his prophesy of the punishment that Jesus was to receive. We know from Matthew 27:30 that following His arrest the soldiers took Jesus and “spat on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.” Just imagine how much damage that beating must have done to Jesus’ head and face. Luke also confirms in Luke 22:63-64 that Jesus was badly beaten. Just imagine that; here was an innocent man beaten so badly about the head and face that no one recognised Him. That battering may have been so bad that many may have turned away from the horrific sight that they saw. Isaiah adds that “his form [was] marred beyond human likeness” (52:14). The Message translation puts it even more graphically when it says, “He didn't even look human - a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.” Unfortunately we often see pictures of older people who have been attacked and beaten so badly that their families can barely recognise them. That was how badly Jesus was beaten by His Roman guards before His crucifixion. The physical punishment didn’t stop there. We learn that “He was pierced” and “He was crushed” (53:5). What else can “pierced” mean if it doesn’t point to what happened at the crucifixion? Remember that Jesus’ side was pierced by a soldier’s sword and His hands and feet were pierced by the nails that were used to attach Him to the Cross of Calvary. It all conjures up quite a gruesome picture.
This servant didn’t only suffer physically; there was also the psychological and emotional suffering added to it. Isaiah tells us that He was “despised and rejected by mankind” (53:3). People hid their faces from Him because they despised Him so much and He was held in “low esteem” (53:3). How would we cope with that? We all like to be liked don’t we? We all like to be highly regarded by friends and colleagues and we don’t like being ignored and having people turn away from us rather than look at us. And yet, that is what happened to the servant as part of His suffering. Amazingly enough, we see later in 53:10, that: “it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer”. This suffering didn’t come about by accident; it was all part of God’s great plan for His people. For that plan to succeed the servant had to suffer.
Why Did The Servant Suffer?
OK, so God sent His servant and made Him suffer. Why did He do that, especially since Jesus was His Own Son?
I’ve already mentioned that for sins to be forgiven a sacrifice had to be offered and blood spilt and sprinkled over those seeking forgiveness. In the Old Testament there was this never ending cycle of sin and sacrifice followed by God’s forgiveness. This constant cycle did not please God which is why He sent Jesus as His servant to be the once and for all sacrifice. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). God’s intention was that the blood of this single servant, Jesus Christ, would pay the price of the sins for the many.
As sinners we all deserve to be punished and yet God chose His Son to be the suffering servant to take that punishment on our behalf. Isaiah leaves us in no doubt about all this as he tells us in various places that, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him” (53:5); “the LORD [that is God] has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (53:6b); “for the transgression of my people He was punished” (53:8). This was all planned as we can determine from 53:11 where we are told that, “my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities”. Finally in 53:12 Isaiah tells us that “He bore the sin of many”. Surely you will agree with me that those verses leave us in little doubt why this servant suffered.
Isaiah points out in 53:4 (NLT Version) that because He was despised so much, “we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!” Remember that the Pharisees plotted against Jesus from very early on in His earthly ministry. They hated Him because they saw Him as a threat to their own position and the status quo and so concocted charges of blasphemy against Him. So much power did they have over the people they were able to convince them that this wasn’t the Messiah at all but simply a blaspheming son of a carpenter from Nazareth. Given that, it is easy to see why the people would initially believe that Jesus was being punished for His own sins.
A further important point to note is that Jesus didn’t complain about any of this. He may have been “led like a lamb to the slaughter” but “He did not open His mouth” (53:7). This was a servant Who was willing to comply with God’s will and do His calling uncomplainingly. How many of us could say that of ourselves?
These wonderful verses do not mention the Cross at all although it is implied when you read between the lines. We meet the servant chosen by God to suffer for His people; to take the punishment for the sins of many; and to shed His blood to pay the price for those sins.
He suffered tremendously and Isaiah leaves us in no doubt as to how badly He suffered, and yet He didn’t complain or refuse. He may have been a suffering servant but He was also a willing servant. We can but praise God that His chosen servant was willing to follow His Father’s will to be crushed and suffer so that all those who accepted Him as Saviour would be sprinkled by His blood and forgiven their sins.
I commend these verses to you all in the hope that they will make you think of the pain and suffering that Jesus endured on our behalf so that we could be forgiven by God and reconciled to Him.