This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and over the Internet.
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Bible passage, read by Sue W
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
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.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah 53 (NIV)
We are programmed into knowing that this is a prophecy about Jesus. But all Isaiah really knows is that this is God’s suffering servant. There’s nothing that says that this is Jesus in this passage. Hundreds of years later, of course, Jesus himself interpreted this chapter, Isaiah 53, for himself as God’s chosen one. As did Philip in Acts chapter 8 when he explains to the Ethiopian servant, eunuch, who the suffering servant really was.
Of course, the best way to interpret the Bible is through the eyes, through the lens, of Jesus. Knowing him, who he is, why he matters, what his life, his death, and his resurrection actually means to those who follow him. According to Isaiah, this is a prophecy about a suffering servant, God’s servant who suffers, taking on the corruption and the evil of Israel, the chosen nation.
Taking on this corruption is not a good thing and yet somehow, through considerable abuse and hardship, somehow this suffering servant yet restores not just Israel but the whole of creation. Back in Isaiah chapter 49, this servant has a ministry to Israel, yet whose ministry is for the whole world, whose message is all about restoration. I’m really grateful Gill that we sang “And I Will Trust In You”, Psalm 23, that always reminds me of restoration, he restores my soul.
Isaiah 49, where we have this introduction to the suffering servant, this message is about restoration. The poor servant has much to go through on God’s behalf. In Isaiah chapter 50, the identity of this servant in hindsight looks more like Jesus. He is the one who sustains, he is weary, he is mocked. In Isaiah chapter 51 he looks back to Abraham for future hope, no matter how distant that hope may feel.
In Isaiah chapter 52 right towards the end and, obviously, here in Isaiah 53, the servant is revealed as the one who will suffer on behalf of God’s people, bearing their sin, and restoring the whole of creation in doing so. Whilst also being the servant that suffers on God’s behalf. This servant bears the brunt of both God and people.
Somehow, the final picture of the suffering servant in these chapters is one of restoration and renewal, a picture of hope, if you like, to Israel and the rest of the world. It seems to be a confusing mush of sin and fracture and yet more than a chink of light because of the servant who suffers. I wonder, myself, whether the key to unlocking this whole chapter is Isaiah chapter 53 and verse 10. Part of which reads, “The Lord makes his life an offering for sin.” Gosh, sounds serious, doesn’t it?
We read in the lead-up to this verse that the suffering servant has gone through some extreme suffering: beatings, torture at the hands of people. The innocent, abused servant seems to be the victim of their horrendous actions against him. Yet, he does not choose to be the victim in all this. Instead, he wants to use this extreme suffering as a kind of offering to God.
In understanding Jewish sacrifices and offerings, the servant turns his experience into what John Goldingay calls a reparation offering. Literally, an offering for sin. John Goldingay says this, “This kind of sacrifice was one that you made when you needed to make amends for something you had done.” [John Goldingay, Isaiah for Everyone, Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2015), 205.]
I’m sure that many of us could think of occasions when we might have to make a similar sin offering to somebody. It really does not seem that the servant needs to make amends, however. He is the blameless one. Yet he is offering himself on behalf of the people to make amends with God. One would hope that others should be seeking to make amends for the abuse is that this innocent man has suffered at their own hands.
Indeed, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and the gathered masses were confused at the sea, Peter gets up and states, “Fellow Israelites, Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose divine authority was clearly proven to you by all the miracles and the wonders that God performed through him. You yourselves know this,” says Peter, “For it happened among you, in accordance with his own plan, God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him.” Acts chapter 2, verses 22 and 23 from the Good News version. “You killed him.”
Peter continues, “You killed him, but God raised him from death, setting him free from its power, because it was impossible that death should hold him prisoner.” This is the sermon that ends where the listeners are cut to the hearts and the people are shattered and ask, “Well, what should we do?” How do we make that reparation offering for this awful sin that they just discovered that they killed the Messiah?
Peter’s response is that they repent, believe, be baptized, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s God’s gift to them. In essence, to offer themselves back to God’s form of living sacrifice. Similarly, in Acts chapter 8, as the Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah chapter 53 in his carriage and through the Holy Spirit’s direction, Philip was able to teach him about Jesus being the suffering servant and the fulfilment of that prophecy.
The Ethiopian man responds, he has his heart touched and is baptized in commitment to Jesus right there, right then. The example of this man can be true for us today, we can still choose to follow the way of the suffering servant. We too can choose to be baptized as an outward sign of the life that has gone and a renewed and a restored life ahead.
Whilst we don’t know what became of the Ethiopian man, we want to believe that his experience changed him and wanted him to follow Jesus the suffering servant because it does seem to me that this servant offers his own obedient life to God on behalf of those who had hurt him, to see whether God would accept the offering of his own life as compensation of the lives of those who had hurt him.
The people and the nation of Israel had caused the suffering of the servant, and it’s gruesome at best. It was punishment that was dealt by people as Peter points out, not by God. Yet, miraculously, somehow the servant accepts this as the price of seeking them and bringing them to wellness and wholeness.
Amongst the humiliation of the sickening way in which this, God’s servant, is put to death, comes absolute humility, with which the servant offers his life. In verse 3, we read “Like one from people hid their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. We considered him punished by God, stricken by him and afflicted.”
In verse 7, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before the shearer is silent, so he didn’t open his mouth.” In verse 8, “By oppression and judgment, he was taken away.” Then in verse 10, this troubling verse. “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer. The Lord makes his life an offering for sin.” Suffice to say, reams of books have been written upon the theories of atonement.
The writer of Hebrews says that, “It is Jesus who shared in our humanity so that by his death, he might break the power of him who holds the power of death.” That’s the devil. “And free those who all their lives was held in slavery by the fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants,” he goes on. “For this reason, he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
The centrepiece of our thoughts this morning, surrounds this atonement, the things that changes everything for a renewed and restored future. The thing that points us to a new normal. This suffering servant voluntarily goes like a lamb to the slaughter. Somehow at the same time, it’s the Masters will that he does this. God Almighty sides with those who humiliated the servant who has done no wrong. Why would such a God do this? How on earth could such a God do this?
Perhaps we forget an earlier part of the chapter where God reveals this servant as the arm of the Lord. Interpretations upon this verse are obviously quite varied, but very simply put in my thoughts, an arm is part of a person. Isabel knows that more than anything at the moment. Perhaps the arm of the Lord was like God’s right-hand man. Thus the servant is not just a common or garden slave, but one of utmost importance.
More importantly, as we remember that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the suffering servant, we recall that father God and the son are one. For Israel, God was always one. Deuteronomy Chapter 6 and verse 10, says this, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” God is one, God is love.
Jesus repeats these verses in Mark Chapter 12 and verse 29, and so many times in Scripture aligns himself with his Father, through his teachings, through his miracles, and now as we look back into hindsight as the suffering servant, and the one in whom the whole Old Testament prophecy about Messiah is fulfilled.
Father, and Son, and Spirit are very nature God as Philippians 2 verse 6 and Acts Chapter 2 point out. They are one God. He is one God. It becomes apparent that somehow the same will of the one God is to go through such torments and horror that we now know as the crucifixion. The same crucifixion we commemorate on Good Friday, the same crucifixion and resurrection that we celebrate on Easter Sunday and every time we gather for communion.
This very act of God’s will which I find, we find perhaps, so hard to get our heads around was simply the full Godhead, agreeing that this was the way forward in order to meet the criteria of the Old Testament laws so that the guilty might go free. That’s what atonement is about in simple terms so that people’s sins would be forgiven. To put it another way, as The Voice translation puts it, “called to reconcile a sinful people.” For the ones who put the servant to death, this becomes for them good news.
The full Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit somehow agreed that atonement was the way forward to move things on, making himself one with people, the God-man Jesus, fully human, fully God joins together heaven and earth. As the old hymn, “Here is love, vast as the ocean,” says and proclaims, “And heavens peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”
The suffering servant and thus the death of God in Jesus reminds us that God is not immune to suffering, or even death. To quote my friend Simon Cross as I did a couple of weeks ago, “God is vulnerable. God suffers.” The picture of the suffering servant, if we place the pieces together, is that God suffers not just for us, but God suffers with us. “God’s engagement,” says Simon, “with the world is not as some voyeuristic remote controller. It is intimate, and it’s painful, and God does not back down from love. Not ever.”
Today, we’ve skated over a lot of in-depth theology, the picture of the suffering servant laying down his life, a bit about God’s will, the person of God in the Trinity, the atonement, the truths that everybody on earth now has access to the forgiveness of sin, and a fully restored and renewed relationship with their Creator God. The truth that all this occurred because God does not back down from love. Not ever.
None of these things are simple to grasp. None of them are easy bits of theology to explain. I’m sure that there are others within the congregation who could give deeper exposition about this great passage, and perhaps we might on Tuesday evening as we gather for Bible study.
If all of this has gone over your head, here’s a summary, it’s from 2 Corinthians Chapter 5:17–20. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. We are therefore God’s ambassadors as if God were making his appeal through us.”
In short, thanks to God we have life. Let’s live this new life and share it with others because I think that should be our new normal.
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved. “NIV” is a registered trademark of International Bible Society. UK trademark number 1448790.