THE SUFFERING SERVANT
I must confess that I was overjoyed when Pastor asked me to preach from this portion of Isaiah. If there is any one passage from the Old Testament that I have always wanted to preach from, it is this one. This part of Isaiah, often known simply as "The Suffering Servant", contains the very heart of the gospel.
It can be summed up very simply as this: "Jesus suffered and died for our sins." This is so basic that we sometimes forget it is what Christianity is all about. It's not primarily about becoming a good person, or finding peace in our hearts or strength to cope with the struggles of life. Yes, these things are part of our Christian life, but if you think about it, most other religions promise these things as well. The heart of Christianity is this: "Jesus suffered and died for our sins." It is important that we never forget this.
I will first start with a very brief overview of the entire passage, followed by a more detailed discussion of its main themes.
A PORTRAIT OF MESSIAH
In the passage before us, Isaiah is painting a picture of the Messiah, the one whom the Lord would send to rescue Israel and establish an everlasting kingdom.
The vision of Isaiah
We don't know for sure how prophets received their inspiration from God, but Isaiah often speaks of the visions that he saw. In fact the first verse of this book begins with these words: "The vision of Isaiah, which he saw ..."
Imagine then, if you will, Isaiah receiving one of these visions while he is deep in prayer. God puts him right there, in spirit, seven hundred years in his future, as an eye-witness of the events leading up to the most important moment in all of human history – the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Messiah.
Now, Isaiah has one great advantage: As He witnesses Jesus being betrayed, put on trial, tortured and crucified, he also sees the spiritual reality behind all the events – that the truth of the matter was that Jesus was dying for our sins, something which those who were there, watching him die on the cross, were unable to comprehend until much later.
Moved by this vision, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah then proceeds to write a magnificent poem to describe in detail what he saw in his vision. The amazing thing about this description of Messiah is that it would be fulfilled in minute detail in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, seven hundred years after the prophet had penned his poem. The fact that one person so accurately fulfilled all the prophecies (not just in Isaiah but also elsewhere in scripture) is a testimony both to the trustworthiness of scripture and to the fact that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.
As I go through the picture which Isaiah paints for us, I want you to notice that he does not go about it in a chronological order in the way that most of us would. No, he does it instead in the form of flashbacks - going back and forth in time to weave a compelling story.
Without further ado, let's now see what Isaiah has to tell us about the suffering servant:
BEHOLD, MY SERVANT SHALL ACT WISELY;
HE SHALL BE HIGH AND LIFTED UP,
AND SHALL BE EXALTED.
The first thing he declares is the grand finale – Jesus will be high and lifted up. This is what it's all about. The story of the gospel exists ultimately to show forth the love and mercy of God, so that the name of Jesus may be exalted.
HIS APPEARANCE WAS SO MARRED, BEYOND HUMAN SEMBLANCE,
AND HIS FORM BEYOND THAT OF THE CHILDREN OF MANKIND.
Now, immediately after announcing that Christ will be highly exalted, Isaiah goes to the other extreme - he describes the lowest point in the life of Jesus. In verse 14 of chapter 52 we read: "His appearance was marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind." Isaiah sees Jesus being reduced to such a mass of bleeding flesh that he can hardly be recognized as human. Remember, in his mind's eye, he was there witnessing Jesus being flogged by the Romans. Anyone who watched the movie The Passion will find it hard to forget the scene where the nails in the whip become embedded deep in the flesh of our Lord, and the torturer has to give it a good yank to get it out, ripping out a large chunk of flesh in the process. Isaiah here gives us a good idea of the bloody pulp that must have remained of his face and body after the flogging.
WHO HAS BELIEVED WHAT HE HAS HEARD FROM US?
AND TO WHOM HAS THE ARM OF THE LORD BEEN REVEALED?
There is a pause in the narrative, as Isaiah muses to himself: Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? Who's going to believe what I have to say about Messiah? Who could believe it, unless the Lord reveals his mighty arm, and gives him the faith to believe?
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,
AND NO BEAUTY THAT WE SHOULD DESIRE HIM.
And then, in a flashback, Isaiah brings us back to the early childhood years of Jesus. He pictures Messiah as growing up before the Lord like a young plant, in the quiet little town of Nazareth, a root out of dry ground. Luke 2 tells us "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and with the favour of God upon him." Yet he was unnoticed by anyone, for "he had no form or majesty or beauty that we should desire him." In other words, he had none of those qualities that bring forth men's admiration. We think of Prince William and Prince Harry, growing up in the public eye – good-looking, rich, famous, with royal blood. Jesus was not like that. He was poor and humble.
HE WAS DESPISED AND REJECTED BY MEN;
A MAN OF SORROWS, AND ACQUAINTED WITH GRIEF.
As Isaiah moves forward to the latter part of Messiah's life, he describes him as despised and rejected. Those in his own hometown sneered at him: "Is this not the carpenter's son?" He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He knew the pain of being betrayed with a kiss, and of being deserted by all of his closest friends.
SURELY HE 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.
Isaiah then comes to the heart of this passage. He declares the spiritual reality of what is happening to Messiah. Remember, in his vision he has the privilege not only of looking into the future, but also of being able to understand the true significance of what he is seeing.
The entire passage pivots around this word: "SURELY". Isaiah says here that SURELY - the real truth of the matter - is that he was bearing OUR griefs and carrying OUR sorrows.
See, those who saw Messiah being tortured and crucified were probably thinking in their hearts that surely he was being punished by God for some deep hidden sin. The Hebrew words translated as "stricken", "smitten by God" and "afflicted" all bear the connotation of suffering sent by God as judgment for sin. In the Jewish mind, there is an inseparable link between sin and suffering. If you sin, you will suffer for it, and therefore, if you are suffering, it must be because you have sinned.
BUT - Isaiah says - He was wounded for OUR transgressions; crushed for OUR iniquities. He was scourged, he was spat upon and beaten on the head, he was crowned with thorns, he was crucified for our sins, so that we could have peace with God and healing for our souls and our bodies.
HE WAS OPPRESSED, AND HE WAS AFFLICTED,
YET HE OPENED NOT HIS MOUTH;
LIKE A LAMB THAT IS LED TO THE SLAUGHTER,
AND LIKE A SHEEP THAT BEFORE ITS SHEARERS IS SILENT,
SO HE OPENED NOT HIS MOUTH.
Isaiah then continues with a description of the last hours of Messiah's life. We are taken to the scene of his trial. He was falsely accused and condemned - even though everyone could see that he was innocent. In all this he never opened his mouth to protest the injustice that was being done. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. All he needed to do was to say the word, and his Father would immediately send twelve legions of angels to rescue him – but he did not. He willingly went to the cross.
AND THEY MADE HIS GRAVE WITH THE WICKED
AND WITH A RICH MAN IN HIS DEATH.
And then he describes Messiah's death and burial. He was crucified between two thieves. The usual fate of those who were crucified is that their bodies would be taken down and thrown into Gehennah - the huge rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, to rot there. That's what the Romans planned to do with him – to make his grave with the wicked - but instead he was buried in a rich man's tomb – that of Joseph of Arimethea, who asked for his body after his death to give it an honourable burial. This happened in order that the scripture would be fulfilled.
THEREFORE I WILL DIVIDE HIM A PORTION WITH THE MANY,
AND HE SHALL DIVIDE THE SPOIL WITH THE STRONG.
The final image of Messiah which Isaiah paints for us is that of a triumphant conqueror. "He shall divide the spoil with the strong." Just as a victorious king divides the spoils of war with his generals, so Christ will divide the spoil with those who have triumphed with him. God has highly exalted Christ and given him victory over sin and death, and we who are in Christ share that victory.
To summarize, right at the beginning, Christ is portrayed as high and lifted up and exalted. At the end of the passage, the same thing is declared - Christ is a triumphant conqueror over sin and death. And in between is an amazing prophecy, fulfilled down to the smallest detail in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, where we are told WHY Christ deserves to be exalted. It is because, even though he was God, he humbled himself and became a man - to suffer and die for our sins. He did this out of an amazing love for us, and in willing obedience to the Father, so that the glory of God's love and mercy could be made manifest.
SIN AND SUFFERING – THE CURSE OF THE LAW
The reason this passage resonates so deeply with all of us is that we are all familiar with suffering. We KNOW what the prophet is talking about when he says Messiah was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, because we ourselves know what it means to feel pain and grief and sorrow. We experienced pain the moment we were born, when the midwife spanked our bottom to make us cry and draw in our first breath of air. We are familiar with the pain of losing our loved ones, and of being despised and rejected.
Most of us would also have learnt along the way that our suffering is linked to our sin. When we were young children, we found out sooner or later that being disobedient or naughty – doing what we knew to be wrong – would lead to a painful experience: that of being punished by our parents. When we see bad things happen to others, don't we often think to ourselves or even say out loud that "this must have been a punishment from God."?
The Israelites knew this from bitter experience. It is believed that Isaiah wrote this poem while the Jews were still in captivity in Babylon. They had been addicted to the worship of idols, and they had been carried off to Babylon as a punishment for this sin, after ignoring many warnings from God. As a nation, they were suffering for their idolatry, and they knew it.
The idea that sin leads to suffering is not new. Right in the beginning, in the book of Genesis, God told Adam and Eve that they would suffer because they had sinned. To the woman he said, "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." And to Adam he said, "Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you."
We are also warned about the curse of the law. In chapter 28 of Deuteronomy, we read of the blessings promised to those who obey the law. But in the second half of this chapter, we read of the many curses that will befall those who are not careful to obey the commandments of the law. Here's a small sample: "The LORD will send on you curses on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken him. He will strike you with wasting disease and with fever and with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind..." And it goes on and on and on.
The ultimate curse which all of us face is death - spiritual death. The soul that sinneth - it shall die. Paul puts it another way: The wages of sin is death. Spiritual death is nothing less than the eternal separation of the soul from its creator and the source of all its blessings. Where there is separation from God, there can be no hope of any blessing or any mercy - only eternal pain and deprivation and darkness. And it is what all of us rightly deserve for our sin.
Think about all the ways that hell is described - it's all about eternal suffering! Our Lord Jesus himself describes it as being outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
THE MAGNITUDE OF OUR SIN
Now, if you ask anyone whether they think they would actually deserve all this, the most common answer would be: "No." I've gone around asking people if they would agree that all of us have sinned. They will usually answer "Yes - we're not perfect. We've all done things which we've known were wrong." But there is always an attempt to tone down the seriousness of sin by calling it a "moral failing" or "a bad decision". The general consensus is that we're not that bad. We don't deserve to go to hell.
But think about this: Whom have we all sinned against? We have sinned against Almighty God, the one who made the universe. He created us and therefore has every right to demand our complete love and obedience and worship, which we have failed to render to him from the day we were born. Those of us who are parents will understand the hurt and anger we feel when our children reject us and rebel against us. Can you imagine how God must feel when men despise him? Men whom he himself made from the dust of the earth and breathed life into.
Yes, he is a loving and forgiving God, but he is also holy and just. He hates sin, and has declared: "The soul that sinneth - it shall die." In order to be true to his own nature, he must punish sin.
And we have all sinned. Look at verse 6 of our text: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way." If this is the case (and it is) and if suffering is what we deserve for our sin, then all of us are in trouble. It would take an eternity of suffering in hell to repay our debt to an infinitely holy God!
THE MADNESS OF OUR SIN
None of us enjoy suffering, and would rather avoid it if we could. We instinctively shrink from the idea of hell, because we don't exactly relish the prospect of eternal suffering. That's why I think there is a certain madness to sin. We know deep inside that we will suffer for it and regret it infinitely (as DSK said), but we still go ahead and do it. As Bono once sang: "Sweet the sin, bitter the taste in my mouth." Sin deceives us – it promises pleasure, it promises to make us happy. And so we sin willingly because we fall for the lie that sin will make us happy. But pleasure is not happiness. We soon realize that sin may give us pleasure for a short time, but it can never make us truly happy. In the end it always brings pain and suffering.
We may be tempted to doubt this principle sometimes when we see the wicked prospering and never seeming to suffer in this life, or when we seem to be escaping punishment for our own sins, but rest assured - there will be a final day of reckoning. It is appointed for everyone to die once - and after that comes judgment.
THE CONCEPT OF SUBSTITUTION
I would like to move on now, and introduce you next to a very important concept: Substitution. The Jews were very familiar with this idea of sacrificing an animal as your substitute to satisfy the wrath of God.
We read about this in Leviticus chapter 4. If you became aware that you had committed a sin, this was how you would atone for it: You would select from your flock a bull or a goat that was spotless and without blemish. You would lay your hand on the head of the animal, symbolically transferring your sin and guilt to it. It would then be brutally slaughtered, and its blood would be collected into a bowl. The priest would sprinkle the blood before the Lord seven times, then pour the rest of it onto the altar. The carcass of the dead animal would then be burnt as a burnt offering. Then the priest would make atonement for you, and your sins would be forgiven.
The Jews understood this: "I deserve death for my sin. I deserve the consuming fire of God's wrath. But by the offering of this animal as my substitute, violently killed and consumed by the fire of God upon his altar, I hope to turn away the wrath of God from myself. May my sacrifice be acceptable to God."
But we are told in Heb 10 that the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins. The only acceptable substitute who could atone for my sin by being sacrificed on my behalf would be a perfect human being - one who had never sinned and perfectly fulfilled the righteous demand of the law - to love and obey God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength every moment of his life. Where in the world could I find someone like this who would willingly take my place and sacrifice himself for me?
JESUS CHRIST – OUR SUBSTITUTE
This is where the good news of the gospel message comes in. The reason I have dwelt so long on our sin and the suffering it brings, is that unless we realize how bad the bad news is, we will never appreciate how great the good news is.
The bad news is that we have all sinned, and we stand under the curse of the law. We are all sinners, and we deserve to go to hell. I know you don't hear things like that very often nowadays, but I believe this to be true with all of my heart. But you know what? Knowing that I'm a hell-deserving sinner makes the good news of the gospel so much sweeter.
The fantastic news is that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. He took upon himself our sin and shame. He bore the griefs and the sorrows that were rightfully ours. He was bruised for our transgressions and was crushed to death for our iniquities.
If you find yourself yawning when you hear these words, it might be because you're not convinced of how bad the bad news is. But if, by the grace of God, you HAVE been convicted of the enormity of your sins, these words will be the sweetest words you could ever hope to hear.
REDEEMED FROM THE CURSE OF THE LAW
Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse for us, as he hung upon that tree. He received in himself all of the wrath that was due to us because of the curse of the law.
Like the animal upon whom sin and guilt was transferred by the laying on of hands before it was slaughtered, its blood poured out as an offering and its body burnt as a sacrifice so that God's righteous wrath would be turned away, so our sins were transferred to Christ (and his righteousness transferred to us) and he was led away like a lamb to the slaughter.
THE CUP OF GOD'S WRATH
Remember how Jesus prayed so earnestly in Gethesemane - "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me."? What was our Lord Jesus dreading so much that he could sweat great drops of blood as he prayed in agony to his Father? It wasn't just the thought that he would suffer and be put to death by the Romans in the most cruel way that has ever been devised in the history of mankind. What do you think was in that cup he was referring to? Revelations 14 tells us: "They will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur, and the smoke of their torment will go up forever and ever, and they will have no rest, day or night."
The cup of God's eternal wrath is reserved for all those who do not believe in Jesus. But for those of us who do believe, Christ has already, as our substitute, emptied this cup on our behalf. It was filled to the brim with the unleashed fury of almighty God against all the sins of the elect from all eternity. And Christ put it to his lips, he opened his mouth and he drank all of it - until the cup was empty. And when he had done this, he said: "It is finished!" He tasted death for us, so that we might have life.
See what Isaiah says about this, in verse 22 of chapter 51: Thus says the LORD, who pleads the cause of his people: "Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the dregs of the cup of my fury you shall drink no more."
Christ's willing sacrifice
Christ sacrificed himself willingly. He says so in John chapter 10: "I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." Now follow me closely here. Look at verse 10 of Isaiah 53: It was the will of the Lord to crush him. And what does it say at the end of that verse? The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. In other words, if it was the will of the Lord to crush him, then he would willingly, obediently let it happen. It was his meat and drink to do the will of his father. And we see this in verse 7: He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
He sacrificed himself out of obedience to the will of his father, but he also did it out of love for us. Remember Gal 2:20? The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
DO YOU BELIEVE?
"WHO HAS BELIEVED WHAT HE HAS HEARD FROM US?
AND TO WHOM HAS THE ARM OF THE LORD BEEN REVEALED?"
The question each of us must ask ourselves is this: Do I believe this?
Unless we believe the message of the gospel, it will not apply to us. Heb 4:2 tells us that the word that we receive must be mixed with faith in order to benefit us.
Ask yourself: Do I really believe that Jesus suffered and died for MY sins? Did he bear MY grief and carry MY sorrows? Was he wounded for MY transgressions and pierced for MY iniquities?
If your honest answer is "Yes, I do believe this", then, my friend, you have passed over from death to life. You have been redeemed from the curse of the law. And this is the promise we have in Romans 8:1: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Every time we sin, we don't need to go around looking for a poor bull or goat to sacrifice. We can point - by faith - to the sacrifice that was made 2000 years ago and rejoice that the perfect lamb of God was slain, as our substitute, once and for all. Our great high priest has already made atonement for us, and our sins have been forgiven. And not only that, look at what it says right at the very end of our passage: "He makes intercession for the transgressors." Notice that it is in the present tense!
I am reminded of Paul's boldness in Rom 8:33,34: "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies us. Who can condemn us? Christ Jesus is the one who died (isn't that what this passage is all about?) - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us." When Satan accuses us before God, Christ, our precious Saviour, is there, saying: "But I shed my blood for their sins!"
Do you believe this? Are you counting on it? Have you put all your money on it? The atonement which Christ made for our sins was full, perfect and sufficient for all of our sins. There is no sin that was not atoned for. And yes, even after you believe in Christ with all of your heart and you are saved - you will still sin! But Christ has paid for those sins as well. Not that we now have liberty to sin freely – God forbid! We should live as those who are free from the bondage of sin. But that is another sermon for another day.
PREACH THE GOSPEL!
The message of revival
The title of today's sermon is this: What is the message of revival? The answer is very simple. The message of revival is the message of the gospel, and the message of the gospel is that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. Are we praying for revival? Do we really want to see our church grow? It will not happen if we do not preach the gospel. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. When the gospel is preached, the Holy Spirit will be at work – changing hearts and convicting them of sin, and granting faith and repentance - and it is only this that will lead to changed lives.
This is the message that is ours to deliver. This is the good news that is ours to declare to the world - that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He did this as our substitute, and redeemed us from the curse of the law.
Conclusion: Preach the gospel!
Last week, Pastor was sharing about how God has been greatly blessing all the outreach programs in our church. I was greatly encouraged by the report. I would like to challenge all of us (and that would certainly include myself) to go one step further:
Preach the gospel. Tell people about it - not just those who attend our outreach events, but anyone and everyone whom you have any dealings with - family members, neighbours, colleagues, business associates, fellow students. Warn them (in the kindest way possible) that they are hell-deserving sinners, and that unless they believe that Jesus suffered and died for their sins, they will perish. But tell them also that if they do believe in him, they will not perish but have eternal life. That's fantastic news, isn't it? But, you see, how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching the gospel to them?
Preach the gospel - knowing that there will be many who will reject the message. "Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. If you are rejected, don't take it personally - you are only the messenger, after all. They are not rejecting you, they are rejecting the only one who can save them. And if it still hurts inside, remember - our Lord himself knew what it meant to be despised and rejected by men.
Preach the gospel - and do it for the glory of God. Remember - the ultimate purpose of the gospel is to show forth the glory of God's love and mercy, and so that the name of Jesus may be exalted.
Preach the gospel - praying and trusting the Holy Spirit to open hearts and minds. Acts 16 tells us that it was the Lord who opened Lydia's heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Let's not depend on our ability to befriend people or impress them with our lifestyles, or to persuade them with words of wisdom. Rather, let's just proclaim the message of the gospel as simply as we can, in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Think about it: when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, all they did was simply to go out and proclaim the gospel and 3000 were added to their number that day. It was the power of the Holy Spirit convicting the hearts and minds of those who heard the gospel being preached that made the difference.
We must preach the gospel! How tragic if the people we are reaching out to come to the conclusion that we are such a warm friendly church full of very nice people, but in the end they never get to hear the gospel that will save their eternal souls! How sad if they went away, after hearing our testimonies, thinking that all Christianity is about is how God helps us in our troubles, and heals us of our illnesses, and blesses us. Yes, he does! And we can and should praise God for all these things, but how heartbreaking if they fail to hear about the greatest blessing that God has given us – Jesus suffering and dying for our sins.
Let our first priority always be to communicate the message of the gospel. As Paul told the Corinthians: "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." In fact, he went so far as to say: "I determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
So let's be like those Isaiah describes in verse 7 of chapter 52:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace, who proclaims news of happiness, who declares salvation.
Let's tell everyone the good news that Jesus suffered and died for our sins.
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