Isaiah (Part 61): The Suffering Servant (Ch 53)
What if the story had gone slightly differently? What if most of the incidents had taken place as we know them—Jesus arrested by the temple guard in Gethsemane, taken to Caiaphas for the mock trial, marched at daybreak across Jerusalem to Pilate, Pilate asking Jesus where he was from, Jesus at first not responding, and Pilate speaking of his authority to crucify—but then something different happens. As Jesus tells Pilate that he would have no authority unless given it to him from above, instead of Pilate appreciating the answer, he flies into a rage at the insolence of this one whom he understands to be some mere peasant Jew. Suppose Pilate orders the soldier standing near to run him through, and the soldier draws his sword, thrusting it into Jesus. Jesus crumples to the floor…spilling his blood and dying. Would this death, from a soldier stabbing him rather than that soldier nailing him to a cross, have accomplished God’s purpose?
Well, we can know for certain that our sovereign God was not going to let it happen any other way but the perfect way. In that alternate scene, something is missing. Hebrews 2:9-10 reads as follows: “But we do see Jesus—made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace He might taste death for everyone—crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering in death. For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God—all things exist for Him and through Him—should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The author of Hebrews argues that sufferings were a part of the process. Why did the Servant have to suffer? Well, the verse quoted says that he was made perfect or complete through those sufferings. How then or in what way did the sufferings make him complete?
We must remember that the mission of Jesus is to counter what occurred through Adam. Adam, in a time of testing, chose to remove faith in God and place it in himself. That faith fault was the sin that plunged Adam and all his descendants into the covenant of death. Now Jesus, the second Adam, must, in his own time of testing, hold true to faithfulness in order to qualify as unblemished sin offering.
We certainly remember the time of testing that started Christ’s ministry. After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Satan comes to tempt Jesus to remove faith from God and God’s way in order to accomplish the same goals in a “better,” quicker way. But Jesus maintains faith in what his Father tells him to do. At the end of his three and a half years of ministry, Jesus faced an even greater period of testing. We are introduced to it in Gethsemane. Jesus prays that the cup—this cup of suffering and death—may be removed. But Jesus also states that it is not his own will (the will of Jesus the man) that should be done, but rather it is God’s will to which he will cling. Jesus even tells his disciples to watch so that they may also know how to face temptation—with eyes of faith fixed on God. But as Jesus is spat upon, buffeted, and abused, the temptation increases. After all, Jesus is God. He could presumably at any time call out to put a stop to the proceeding. He could have, as the song says, called ten thousand angels to destroy the world and set him free. And with each lash on his back, the thought of escape but then accompanied by the faithful prayer of “your will be done” must have come fresh to his mind. Every stripe, every blow, every thorn jab, every pound of the hammer driving in the nails must have taken his mind a thousand times over to a fresh, raw point of temptation, answered always with “your will be done.”
This, then, is how the source of salvation is made complete through sufferings. In his extreme temptation, through faith, Jesus qualifies as the unblemished sin offering for the sin of the world.
Isaiah 53 recounts this suffering in unique perspective. The chapter is divided into three sections. Each section provides a perspective from a different representation of Israel. Verses 2 through 6 provide Israel as the nation. In verses 7 through 9, we see Israel as the covenant-fulfilling Servant. And then in verses 10 through 12, we find the perspective of Israel, the offspring of the Messiah. This third perspective, the offspring, is actually portrayed as the purpose of God.
We find three important elements in the chapter with which each perspective grapples. The first element is the desire for the Servant to suffer. In each of the sections, the Israel perspective wants the Servant to suffer and die. We are told in verse 3 that Israel the nation despised the Servant and didn’t value him. Certainly we see that in the Gospels. John 1:11 tells us, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” And although, at times, the people seem favorable to him when they expect to gain from him (miracles or leadership to overthrow Rome), they end up united in calling out, “Take Him away! Crucify Him!” (John 19:15).
Israel the Servant also wants to continue to the suffering and death conclusion of his earthly ministry. Isaiah 53:7 reads, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth.” Imagine Christ’s surprise as he gets up from prayer to meet Judas and the temple guard, his mind probably filled with faithful determination to confront the temptations about to be outpoured, and suddenly Peter rushes past him to take a swing at the servant of Caiaphas. In the same intensity that Jesus had once told him, “Get behind me, Satan!” he now calls out to Peter, “Sheathe your sword! Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given Me?” (John 18:11). And so, Israel the Servant is intent on the path to suffering and death.
And in the third Israel perspective—that of Zion, the purpose of God—we see the same desire that the Servant should meet with suffering and death. Verse 10 tells us, “Yet the Lord was pleased to crush Him severely.” Why pleased? Did God take pleasure in the suffering of Jesus? Certainly, this is why some critics call this divine child abuse, right? Those critics misunderstand God’s pleasure. The suffering is not pleasurable for suffering’s sake. God is pleased because of what the suffering/death would accomplish. We learn that in the rest of verse 10. There it tells us that when the Servant becomes the restitution (or guilt or sin) offering, then the blessings come (offspring and resurrection) and by that “the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished.” Thus, in all three perspectives, suffering and death is the desired path.
The second element addressed by all three perspectives is the fact of the bearing of sin. In the first section of Israel the nation, Isaiah presents the piercing, crushing, and punishing for the nation—for the Jews—by saying that it was for our transgressions, for our iniquities, for our peace.
In Israel the Servant’s section, a contrast is made between the faithfulness of the Servant and the faithlessness of the people. We read in Isaiah 53:8, “He was struck because of my people’s rebellion.”
And in the Zion section, we’re told that he will carry their iniquities, bore the sin of many, and interceded for the rebels. The activity especially in bearing for many and interceding provides us with the blessing aspects to the nations.
The third and final element in this chapter is the purpose fulfillment. Again, for the nation, Isaiah uses a first person plural pronoun to highlight the rescue for the Jews: “We are healed by His wounds” (53:5).
The Servant section presents us with an interesting picture. In 53:9, the NASB provides a translation which best provides the intent: “His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.” The wicked (plural) is contrasted with the rich (singular). The idea is to contrast the before and after aspects of the suffering. As he suffered and died he was treated as a criminal, dying for sin. But on the other side of the death, with atonement made, Jesus is placed in a rich man’s grave, indicating the favor of God in his successful, faithful mission.
Finally, the Zion section shows the purpose accomplished for the world. Verse 12 reads, “I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil.”