Isaiah (Part 55): Salvation to the World (Ch 49a)

03/01/2013 16:18


Isaiah 49 begins with the Servant speaking. The Servant calls out to the world to listen. We understand this as a universal call because he speaks to “coastlands.” Some translations use the word “islands,” but the meaning is the same. Coastlands are those areas that are at the extreme edge of land before the sea begins. Likewise, islands picture distant places. The idea is that this call is not to the home country of Israel but rather to the far-reaching edges of all humankind. These Gentile nations are called to listen, to pay attention to what the Servant has to tell them.

The Servant begins by speaking of his own call by God. It was in the womb—just before his birth—that God already identified this one as the Servant. Of course, we know that God had this in mind from eternity past. The emphasis on the birth, however, indicates that this Servant (although we know him to be the second Person of the Trinity, who, as 48:16 told us, had been around since the beginning of everything) as a human had a beginning. We know that Jesus has been called the “only begotten” of the Father. Also, Hebrews 1:5 stresses, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.” Therefore that emphasis on beginning this earthly ministry is highlighted with the picture of the womb and being born.

We also see an emphasis in the very next verse that this Servant has come to speak. His words are like a sharp sword. Jesus was the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). The Servant is pictured as both a sword in hand (close-in battle) and arrow in quiver (distance battle), indicating his equipping for every task.

And the words--the message--of this Servant would be to the glory of God (49:3). In what way would he glorify God? We need look no farther than the emphasis throughout Isaiah on how God wanted his servant, Jacob, to glorify him—through faith/trust dependence on him as the care-giving (rescuing/sustaining) God. This the Servant (Christ) would do. We know that Christ specifically states in the Gospels that he did only what the Father directed and spoke only the Father’s words.

But the first part of verse 4 shakes us a little even as it describes the Servant being shaken. He feels that he has “labored in vain,” and has “spent [his] strength for nothing and futility.” Can these words of despondency really characterize our Lord here on earth? Certainly, they may. Luke 9:41 shows us that Christ reaches frustration with the disciples after living with them and teaching them, still finding them trying to do on their own without dependence on their care-giving God. He moans, “You unbelieving and rebellious generation! How long will I be with you and put up with you?” Again in Mark 8:21 the disciples worry over not bringing bread, and this just after Christ had fed the multitudes with God’s miraculous provision. Here, too, Christ groans, “Don’t you understand yet?” Christ very well may have felt that his teaching message was “for nothing and futility.” But had Christ allowed himself to give way to this despondency, he would have been guilty of the very thing he was complaining about in the disciples—a lack of trust in the care-giving God. Therefore, we see the quick turn from the despondent thoughts in 49:4 as he maintains, “Yet my vindication is with the Lord, and my reward is with my God.” Even with the frustration, Jesus continues to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).

The Servant completes his comments in verses 6 and 7, first, by recapping his call and, next, by quoting the Lord. He says that he was formed to bring Jacob back so that Israel might be gathered to God. That is an interesting depiction reminding us of Romans 11:26 in which “all Israel will be saved.” All Israel there and here in Isaiah means all those of faith. God tells us (through Paul) that they are not all Israel who are called Israel (Rom 2:28), indicating that ethnic Israel is not God’s intended covenant people. All along it has been the people of faith with whom God moves in love and interest. And to this hope the Servant is honored—that is, given an “eternal weight of glory” (49:5—2 Cor 4:17). We learn that it is not enough for the Servant to raise up those of faith in ethnic Israel but to include all those of the world who will believe.

In verse 7 Isaiah takes over the narration. He readies us to hear what God, the Servant’s Holy One, says about the Servant. The Servant is the despised and abhorrent one mentioned in verse 7. But the Servant is also the one who God—the Lord who has kings and princes bowing to him—has chosen. Thus, we see a picture of the Servant as lowly but then lifted to glory. It reminds us of Matthew 11:29 “I am gentle and humble in heart” moving to Phil 2:10 “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow.”

In verse 8, God promises to answer, be a help, and keep the Servant. The word “help” is azar, the root of ezer, the term used of Eve in the Garden. This word means to gird up and support. It has the connotation not merely of an assistant but of someone who makes up for the lack in the one needing help. Christ certainly (as 1 Cor 11:3 tells us) was the vulnerable one needing help from his “head,” the Lord God. This help, we’re told in 49:8, came in the “day of salvation”—that day in which Christ went to the cross and died. Certainly, here is where the Servant was at his most vulnerable and was indeed not able to care for himself. All his hope and trust was placed in his God as he committed himself to him in his death. And God did answer and help and keep. He raised him from the dead and then appointed him to be the covenant for his people.

What is it to be a covenant? We certainly have seen covenants made in the OT. But the language here is a bit different. Christ is appointed to be a covenant. Being a covenant has to do with how atonement was accomplished.

While I find no fault with the name “Penal Substitution,” for Christ did act as a substitute for the penalty of sin, the theory of penal substitution adds more to the description. One of the main ideas behind penal substitution is that Christ became sin for us (or, in other words, that our sin was imputed to Christ). This notion, I think, rests more in the reformed mindset than it does in the Bible.

Certainly a couple of verses seem to hint at the possibility that Christ was made sin. The strongest of these is 2 Corinthians 5:21 “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Here is the great double imputation passage in which penal substitutionists claim our sin was imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us in return. In all the Bible, this verse is the only one to state that Christ became sin. Certainly, if the Bible says something even once, it is enough. It must be true. But does this concept fit? We know that the sacrificial system of the OT shows sin or atonement offerings to be pictures of what Christ would accomplish once for all. In each of these sin offerings, the animal chosen had to be free from blemish. Immediately we see a difficulty with penal substitution. In penal substitution, Christ becomes sin. That means he becomes blemished. He dies as a blemished offering, not an unblemished one. A blemished, sin-laden Christ could not qualify as a sin offering. But what of the verse – 2 Cor 5:21? Paul used the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the OT—when quoting from the OT. The Septuagint uses the Greek word harmartia (which means “sin”) as translation of the fuller phrase “sin offering.” Thus, in Leviticus 4-6 where “sin offering” is mentioned in Hebrew about 21 times, the Septuagint consistently translates it simply as “sin.” Thus, most scholars believe that the 2 Cor 5:21 reference to Christ becoming “sin” should be read, “He made the One who did not know sin to be a sin offering for us.” Christ, then, was not really made sin, but rather, in his sinless, unblemished state, became a sin offering for us. Therefore, Christ was qualified to be a sin offering because he was blameless.

We also need to look at 1 Peter 2:24. There it says, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree.” The bearing of our sins is not becoming sin. If I pay a creditor for your debt, I never was considered by the creditor to owe the debt. Yet, still, I bore your debt and paid for it. This is the sense in which Christ bore our sin. We know that Christ could not have borne our sin in the sense that he became guilty. Acts 2:27 tells us (with Christ speaking), “You will not leave me in Hades or allow Your Holy One to see decay.” If “Holy One” describes Christ, we must recognize Christ’s sinless state. “Holy” in Greek is hosios, which means undefiled by sin. Therefore, Christ has to be sinless in order to qualify for resurrection.

The important concepts here are that Christ had to be free of sin at his death to qualify to be a sin offering. And he had to be free of sin immediately after his death to qualify for resurrection. The Bible, therefore, strongly instructs us that Christ could not have been made sin.

Two covenants of life have existed for us, the human race. The first was made between God and Adam. It depended on that activity of Adam. Adam failed. By removing his trust from God, he broke the covenant of life. As a result he was cursed to die. And all Adam’s descendants (born in his likeness of the sin image) were doomed to an everlasting death. God intended from before time began to redeem humankind whom he knew would fall. God sent himself into the world as Christ—born of Adam, yet born of God—virgin born—so that he did not fall under the curse passed to Adam’s descendants. Christ, the second Adam, unlike the first Adam, kept the new covenant of life; he maintained constant faith in his care-giving Father. Therefore, when Christ went to the cross to die, he—the unblemished one—did not die for his sin, but, as a sinless descendant of Adam, died to satisfy the curse placed on Adam and his descendants for Adam’s breach of the original covenant of life. Those, then, who had faith in God’s rescue through Christ were reborn. The new birth is a fitting term because the faithful are moved positionally from being descendants of Adam to become descendants of Christ. As descendants of Christ, they inherit his righteous image, have their sins forgiven, and gain everlasting life.

We can put this transformation into six statements:

  1. God cursed Adam with death for breaking the original covenant of life with God.
  2. Adam’s descendants, receiving his sin-bearing image, are likewise cursed.
  3. Because of his holy birth and life, Christ avoided the sin-bearing image of Adam.
  4. So, Christ’s unblemished sacrifice on the cross satisfied the penalty of that covenant-breaking curse.
  5. Through faith in the New Covenant of life, who is Christ himself, Adam’s descendants may be reborn as Christ’s descendants, inheriting his righteousness-bearing image.
  6. Thus, the New Covenant of life results in the righteousness-bearing image of Christ, forgiveness of sins, and everlasting relationship with our God.

This is not only six steps of transformation; it is also the very identification of what Christ’s atonement is all about. Notice that these six statements form a chiasm. The first and last specify resultant death and life. The 2nd and 5th statements contrast the sin-bearing image with the righteousness-bearing image. Finally, the 3rd and 4th statements feature the sinlessness of Christ in his life of faith and his unblemished death. The first three points build on the requirement to pay for the curse that resulted from breaking the original covenant of life. The last three points focus on the death inheritance of life received in the New Covenant of life.

And this is how Christ becomes the covenant-- In the original covenant of life, the terms of the covenant were Adam's faithfulness to God and God's faithfulness to Adam. In the New Covenant of life, the terms are Christ's righteous faithfulness to God not ours. So although the covenant is between us and God, it is maintained by Christ; he is the covenant. 

Returning once more to the idea of the sin offering, we note that the OT depiction of sin offering is nothing like what the penal substitutionists insist about God’s attitude toward sin offerings. We learn from penal substitutionists that God violently hurled his wrath against Christ because God hates sin and Christ had become sin. But notice what Genesis 8:20-21 depicts concerning Noah’s offering: “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord. He took some of every kind of clean animal and every kind of clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. When the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, He said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man ….” The picture is one of calm, with God being pleased and accepting. The picture is not of violence by God against the offering.

We see this again in Leviticus 1:2, 3, 4, 9: “When any of you brings an offering to the Lord … if his gift is a burnt offering …, he is to bring an unblemished male. … He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him …. Then the priest will burn all of it on the altar as a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.”

Of course, other things are involved in our redemption. The Holy Spirit delivers enlightenment (revelation) and through that holds us in faith. Thus, we see the three elements of faith, hope, and love working from the three Persons of the Trinity.