These are the thoughts I shared last night during our Good Friday Reflection Service. Focusing on Isaiah’s portrait of the suffering servant prepared us to partake of communion, or the Lord’s Table. (The Scripture is taken from the New Living Translation.)
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 paints a prophetic portrait of the Messiah as the suffering servant. Through five stanzas of three verses each, the prophet describes the inconspicuous, unappreciated servant of the Lord who will suffer and die for the sins of the people.
This is perhaps the best-known section in the Book of Isaiah. It is widely quoted in the New Testament. Most of the passage concerns the suffering and rejection of the Servant, but the main point is that his suffering will lead to exaltation and glory. This passage is at the heart of the gospel message.
Stanza 1: Exaltation – Though unrecognized, the Messiah will be successful (52:13-15)
13 See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted. 14 But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. 15 And he will startle many nations. Kings will stand speechless in his presence. For they will see what they had not been told; they will understand what they had not heard about.
Isaiah directs our attention to the servant of the Lord. He says that the servant will act wisely, doing what the Lord wants him to do. As a result, the servant will be highly exalted.
By human standards, Jesus was not attractive when he was on the earth. During his trial and crucifixion, he became so disfigured that people were repulsed by his appearance. The first thing we notice about the crucified savior is that he looks, well, crucified. Yet, it was his extreme suffering that gave him the power to cleanse us from our sins.
In response, people will be struck dumb. They will stand in silent awe, in slack jawed amazement.
Stanza 2: Rejection – Though unimaginable, the Messiah was rejected (53:1‑3)
1 Who has believed our message? To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm? 2 My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. 3 He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.
So few people will believe the message about the servant. So few will acknowledge the message as having come from God. The responses move beyond simple astonishment to outright rejection.
There is nothing about his appearance that would automatically attract a following. Jesus did not have Hollywood leading-man good looks.
People might say pleasant and complimentary things about Christ. They will praise his ethics and his teaching. They will proclaim him a good man and a prophet. They will say he has the answers to the problems of society. They will not, however, acknowledge that they are sinners and deserve punishment, and that Christ’s death satisfied the justice of God and reconciled us to God. Today, the servant is despised and rejected, and we do not value him at all.
Stanza 3: Redemption – Though we deserved the punishment, the Messiah took it on himself (53:4-6)
4 Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! 5 But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. 6 All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.
The servant is characterized by griefs and sorrows, but not his own. God was not punishing him. Instead, he was bearing the consequences of our sin.
The essence of sin is going your own way, rather than God’s way. The tendency of sheep is to follow others, even to their own destruction. As human beings, we are no better than sheep.
We are no longer without a shepherd, for the shepherd has given his life for the sheep, namely, you and me.
Stanza 4: Rejection – Though innocent, the Messiah silently submitted to suffering (53:7-9)
7 He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. 8 Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. 9 He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.
Sheep are submissive when being sheared or slaughtered. That is the picture of Jesus as he quietly submitted to his death because he knew it would benefit those who would believe. Though oppressed and afflicted, he went along without a sound. His death was not a capitulation to weakness but an exercise in deliberate control. He was not overpowered. He chose not to fight back.
If his life ended with the grave, his heroism would have been admirable but futile. The empty tomb proved that there was more to his death than anyone realized.
Stanza 5: Exaltation – Though the Messiah’s death appeared a tragedy, it was part of God’s plan and would result in victory (53:10-12)
10 But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands. 11 When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. 12 I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death. He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.
The suffering and death of the servant was clearly God’s will. None of this was accidental, it was all intended. His suffering was a guilt offering, but not for his own sins, but for those of the people. Still, God made him prosper.
His suffering led to life. Because his substitutionary work was completed, he now can justify those who believe. He bore our punishment so we would not have to die. Because of his sacrifice, he can now make many righteous.
While Isaiah does not identify the servant in his prophecy, we who know Jesus as savior know that all of these prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins on himself and made full atonement for them. While we were yet sinners, he died for us. He himself knew no sin, but suffered, the just for the unjust, that we, sinners, might become righteous before God.