The Suffering Servant (Isaiah, part 2)

Last week, we began a look at the book of Isaiah, and I made the statement that Isaiah is sometimes referred to as “the gospel according to Isaiah” because he had so much to say about the coming Messiah — his birth, his death, his resurrection.

            But, as important as the entire book of Isaiah is, I would have to say that the most significant chapter is Isaiah 53.  Over in the New Testament, in Acts chapter 8, there’s a beautiful story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  The Ethiopian is reading from the book of Isaiah.  Specifically, he was reading from chapter 53. 

            Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”  The Ethiopian said, “Not really.  I need someone to explain it to me.”  Then verse 35 tells us that “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” (Acts 8:35).   And there’s really no better place in the Bible to start talking about Jesus.  Isaiah 53 is such a powerful chapter, and I want us to take a look at it this morning.

            But, first, let me tell you about a fellow by the name of Teddy Kollek.  For 38 years, from 1965 to 1993, Teddy Kollek served as the mayor of the city of Jerusalem in Israel.  He was a very popular leader who often met with Christians to discuss matters of mutual interest to both the Christians and the Jews.  But inevitably, whenever the Christians and Jews came together, there was one question that would always come up – “Is Jesus the Messiah?”

            Mayor Kollek was a politician who didn’t want to offend anyone, so his answer to the question was this.  He said that when the Messiah does come, both the Christians and the Jews should form a committee, compose a list of questions, and then meet with the Messiah.  And, at the top of their list should be this question: “Sir, have you ever been here before?”

            Mayor Kolleck did what most politicians tend to do, and that’s evade the question, but his answer points out the significant difference between Jews and Christians.  Those of us who are Christians believe that Jesus, the Messiah, has already been to this earth.  On the other hand, the Jews are still looking for someone yet to come.

            And there really is no middle ground.  Either Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, or he wasn’t.  But, if Jesus was the Messiah, then why, for the most part, did the Jewish people not recognize him when he came 2000 years ago?

            Now, in just a little bit, I want to spend some time answering that question.  But first, let’s watch this video which will give us an overview of the second half of the book of Isaiah, and then I’ll be back to talk more about Isaiah chapter 53.

            VIDEO (Isaiah, part 2)

            So, let’s go back to the question that I raised.  Why was it that the Jewish people for the most part didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah when he came to this earth?  And I believe Isaiah 53 gives us the answer to that question.

            Isaiah begins by asking,Who has believed what he has heard from us?” (Isaiah 53:1)   It’s a rhetorical question and the answer is obvious.  Almost no one believed his message.

            Jesus came as the Messiah, but Israel wanted nothing to do with him. We know that for a while, Jesus had a growing ministry, especially in Galilee.  Thousands of people flocked to hear him speak and watch him heal the sick.  As his reputation grew, the common people loved to hear Jesus preach.  And even if they didn’t know exactly who he was, they could tell that he was definitely not like the other religious leaders.

            We also know that there were many people who followed Jesus for the wrong reasons.  There were some who thought that Jesus would proclaim himself as king and lead a revolt against Rome.  There were others who followed Jesus simply because they liked his miracles.  Or they admired his courage.  Or they were drawn to the beauty of his teaching.  

            But nearly everyone turned their back on Jesus when confronted with Jesus’ call to become his followers. So many people left that, at one point, Jesus asked his closest disciples, Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67).

            By the time Jesus came to Jerusalem for the last time, the nation of Israel was deeply divided over him.  Even though the common people came to him, they didn’t recognize who he was.  They liked Jesus, but they didn’t worship him.  To them he was a great teacher and a great miracle-worker, nothing more.

            The Jewish leaders, though, were a different story.  With few exceptions, they wanted nothing to do with Jesus.  They accused him of being in league with the devil.  They hated him so much that they plotted to kill him.  And, eventually, they succeeded.

            John put it this way at the beginning of his gospel: “He came to his own, and his own peopledid not receive him. (John 1:11).  You may have heard it said that “home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”  But that’s not really true.  Jesus came “home” to his own people, and they wouldn’t take him in.  He came to the people who should have known him best, and they wanted nothing to do with him.  They should have known better.

            The Jewish people knew he was coming — God had told them over and over many times in many ways. Even some pagan astrologers in Persia figured it out when they saw his star in the east.

  • Moses said, “He’s coming.”
  • David said, “He’s coming.”
  • Isaiah said, “He’s coming.”
  • Jeremiah said, “He’s coming.”
  • Daniel said, “He’s coming.”
  • Micah said, “He’s coming.”
  • Zechariah said, “He’s coming.”
  • Malachi said, “He’s coming.”

            Every book, every chapter, every page of the Old Testament testifies to one great truth —”The Messiah is coming.” That’s the theme of the Old Testament — that God would one day send the Messiah to this earth to deliver his people Israel.  But, then, when Jesus finally arrived, they didn’t believe it.  And some of them decided to put him to death.

            Jesus came to his own people … the one place where he should have been welcome, but even his hometown and his own family didn’t want him.  They didn’t receive him, they didn’t believe him.  And, in the end, they crucified him.

            The next few verses in Isaiah 53 help to explain why the people of Israel didn’t believe in Jesus.

1.         They dismissed Jesus because he came from a common background.

            In verse 2, Isaiah said,He grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” (Isaiah 53:2).  Not a mighty tree, but a young plant.  Not a tree planted next to a river of water, but a root coming up out of dry ground.  It’s not much to look at.

            You see, Jesus wasn’t born in Rome.  He wasn’t even born in Jerusalem.  When God decided to enter this world, he came in a most unlikely way — as a helpless baby, born in a stable, in the village of Bethlehem.

            Years later, his critics would dismiss Jesus by saying, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:55).  That wasn’t intended to be a compliment.  It was an insult.  These were people from his hometown of Nazareth.  They had watched him grow up.  They knew Mary and Joseph.  They knew his brothers.  Who did Jesus think he was?

            And, in a sense, you can hardly blame them for reacting the way that they did.  It’s hard for anyone who’s raised in a small town to escape the labels that get put on them.

  • “I doubt if she’ll ever go to college.”
  • “He’ll never get a good job.”
  • “Her family will always be on welfare.”
  • “I knew he’d never amount to much.”

            It’s not fair to assess people like that, but that’s how it is in a lot of small towns. It’s not always negative, but sometimes it is, and when people decide that you came from the wrong side of the tracks, then their judgment tends to stay with you for the rest of your life.

            And that’s the way it was with Jesus.  The people who knew him best (or, at least, thought they did) couldn’t seem to take him seriously.  “Where does this guy get off trying to teach us anything?  He’s Joseph’s son.”

            He was a young plant and a root out of dry ground, which means that he didn’t come from a promising background. The phrase “young plant” means he was just a little plant that people looked at as if it were a weed. You pull it up and toss it aside.  A root out of dry ground is like a plant growing in the dry regions of West Texas.  Lots of dust, not much water.  A little root pokes its way out of the ground, but it’s not going to last long because there’s no water to sustain it.

            Sometimes we look at someone and we say, “He’s just an average guy, nothing special.”  That’s exactly what the Jewish leaders said about Jesus.  They didn’t see any reason to take him seriously, so they didn’t.  Jesus didn’t come with the usual marks of greatness, so the leaders were quick to dismiss him.

2.         They dismissed Jesus because he had an ordinary appearance.

            “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2)

            For 2000 years, people have wondered what Jesus looked like.  Artists in every era have painted Jesus as they imagined him to be.  Most of those paintings, however, tell us more about the artist than they do about Jesus.

            As I’m sure you know, this has become a point of real contention over the past few months, because most of us grew up with a picture of a white Jesus.  Our Sunday School pictures all seem to have been derived from this painting by Warner Sallman in the early 1900’s.  And while I don’t know exactly what Jesus looked like, I feel safe in saying that he didn’t look like this.

            I think this picture posted in Popular Mechanics in December 2002 is probably a lot more accurate.  Using forensic anthropology, British scientists worked with Israeli archeologists and came up with what they believe is the most accurate image of Jesus.

            And while I believe that’s a lot closer, the truth is, no one knows exactly what Jesus really looked like.  Isaiah gives us the only hint in scripture as to his appearance — “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2).  Or as the Good News translation puts it, “There was nothing attractive about him, nothing that would draw us to him.”

            Which makes me absolutely certain that Jesus did not walk around with a glow.  Most of the pictures we see of Jesus have a soft glowing light that just seems to radiate from his face.  And I suppose the reason that’s done is to make Jesus stand out from the crowd.  But Isaiah makes the opposite point. The people who rejected Jesus did so precisely because there wasn’t anything about him that made him stand out.

            Even though he was the Son of God, Jesus appeared on this earth as an ordinary man.  Even though he came from the majesty of heaven, he hid that majesty behind a face of a workingman.

            And the result was that the Jews of Jesus’ day dismissed him,concluding that Jesus simply could not be the Messiah.  He didn’t look the part.

3.         They dismissed Jesus because of his suffering

            In verse 3, Isaiah said, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3)

            Jesus’ whole life was marked by suffering.  When he was born, Herod tried to kill him.  When he began his ministry, the people in his hometown tried to throw him off a cliff.  In the closing hours of his life, he was betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter.  His sufferings didn’t begin on the cross, but it was his suffering that led him to the cross.

            And that was perhaps the biggest reason that the Jews failed to see that Jesus was the Messiah.  They could picture a Messiah who was a king sitting on a throne, but they couldn’t picture a Messiah who hung on a cross.  As Paul said in I Corinthians 1, the cross was a “stumbling block” to the Jews (I Corinthians 1:23).

            So, Isaiah spends most of the rest of the chapter telling us why it was important, why it was necessary for Jesus to die.  As I read verses 4-6, I want you to notice how many times Isaiah uses the words “our” and “we” and “us.”

            Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)

            There is nothing in this passage that makes sense until you feel the full weight of this truth:  Jesus died for us.  What he did, he did for us.  What he suffered, he suffered for us.  The pain and the brutality and the indignity of the cross, it was all for us.

            When telling the story of Jesus, we may say that Jesus was betrayed, tried, falsely accused, mocked, humiliated, crowned with thorns, beaten until his skin was shredded, forced to carry his own cross, and then publicly crucified, the most brutal form of execution in his day.  But if we focus merely on those events, we may come to the conclusion that Jesus shouldn’t have died, that it was all a big mistake, that somehow the powers of darkness finally triumphed over the light.

            But the message of Isaiah is that Jesus died for a reason, not by accident, so that sinners like you and me could be saved.  When Isaiah talks about what Jesus did for “us”, you are in the “us” in these verses and so am I.  You and I are included in the “us” for whom Christ died.  The more personally we read this passage, the more the death of Christ will mean to us.

            Let me briefly share with you three things that Jesus did for us that are mentioned here:

1.         Jesus took our pain

            Verse 4, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” (Isaiah 53:4)

            When Isaiah talks about what the Messiah did for us, he doesn’t start with our sin and our guilt. That comes later.  He begins instead with our griefs andsays that Christ has “borne” our griefs.  That’s a Hebrew word that means to lift up and carry away a heavy load.

            We have so many griefs because we live in a fallen world.  We have so many sorrows because we ourselves are a fallen people.  We need someone who can bear our grief when the burden is too heavy for us.  Jesus came to lift the burden of sadness brought about by our sin and the pain of living in a sinful world. 

            And, I don’t know about you, but it means a lot to me to know that our pain will not have the last word.  Our sorrows will not last forever.   Jesus has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

2.         Jesus took our punishment

            Verse 5, He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

            Because of our transgressions, because of our sins, we all deserve to die.  As Paul put it in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.”

            But the message of the cross is that Jesus took the punishment that we deserved.  He was pierced, not for his transgressions, but for ours.  He was crushed, not for his iniquities, but for ours.

            And Isaiah tells us that because of the punishment that he bore, Jesus brought us peace.  We now can have peace with God.  In a messed-up world filled with broken people, through Jesus Christ we can find peace.

            And because of the punishment that he bore, we are healed.  Healed from our guilt, healed from our hatred, healed from our doubt, healed from our shame. Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, broken people are put back together again.

3.         Jesus took our place

            Verse 6, All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)

            Notice that the word “all” is the very first and the very last word of verse 6.  We have all sinned.  We have all gone astray.  We have all missed the mark.  We have all turned to our own way.

            We’re all in the same boat, and that boat is going down.  If God doesn’t do something, we’re all going to die.  But the good news of the gospel is that God has done something!

            He could have looked at the mess we made and said, “They deserve it.  They messed up. Now let them face the consequences.”  And if God had said that, he would have been 100% justified.  God was under no obligation to rescue us when we wandered astray.

            We said to God, “Leave us alone!”  But God said, “I can’t do that.”  Instead, the Lord has laid on him – Jesus — the great Servant of the Lord who came from heaven on a divine rescue mission.  God laid our sins on Jesus.  That’s the doctrine of substitution.  That’s the heart of gospel.  Jesus took my place when he died.  God laid my sins on him.

            When President Dwight Eisenhower was hospitalized for the final time before he died, a preacher paid him a visit.  At one point, President Eisenhower asked him, “Can an old sinner like me ever go to heaven?”

            Isaiah has some good news for “old sinners,” “young sinners,” “big sinners,” “small sinners,” and everyone in between.  Jesus has paid the price for our sins in full.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, if you are willing to apply the blood of Jesus to your life, you can be saved.

            Because Jesus was pierced for your transgressions and crushed for your iniquities.

            Jesus truly was misunderstood by the Jews.  His own people misread him completely. They had him in a box labeled “Insignificant Rabbi from Nazareth.”  And the more he proved he didn’t belong in that box, the more they hated him, counted him as a nobody, and ultimately despised him.  No wonder they were so eager to kill him in the end.

            And Jesus is still misunderstood today.  The greatest mistake we can make is to ignore him as if he doesn’t matter.  You can’t wait until he comes back to casually ask him, “Sir, have you been here before?”  Because we already know the answer to that question.  Jesus came to this earth 2000 years ago as the promised Messiah who is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  What will you do with Jesus?

            In one of their efforts to get rid of religion in the Soviet Union, a story is told about how the Communist Party sent KGB agents to churches in the country on a Sunday morning.  One agent was struck by the deep devotion of an elderly woman who was kissing the feet of a life-size carving of Christ on the cross.

            He said to her, “Babushka [which means Grandmother], are you also prepared to kiss the feet of the beloved general secretary of our great Communist Party?”

            To which she replied, “Why, of course.  But only if you crucify him first.”

            May we all be prepared to say that we are not willing to give our life and our allegiance to anyone other than the one who gave his life for us.  Jesus gave it all.  What are you willing to give to him?

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