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The Suffering Servant

700 years before Jesus was born, Isaiah spoke of a servant of God who was different from the rest. Most other occurrences of the word ‘servant’ in the book of Isaiah refer either to Israel (as in Isaiah 41:8,10), or to Isaiah himself (Isaiah 49:5). However, the description of the servant that starts in Isaiah 52:13 and goes on till the end of the 53rd chapter cannot be applied to either Israel or Isaiah. That much is clear from this single verse in chapter 53, where the prophet Isaiah says,

“Surely, he took up our iniquities and carried our sorrows”

Isaiah 53:6

Clearly referring to a single person, ‘he’ is said to have taken up ‘our’ iniquities. Here, the usage of the word ‘our’ seems to refer to the Israelites, including Isaiah. Or, perhaps in a broader sense we can take it to mean “all people”. Considering the text in its entirety, it quickly becomes apparent that no man can come close to fitting the fantastic description provided here, but Jesus Christ fulfils every single requirement. In fact, the whole passage of Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 is often described as a ‘summary of the gospel in the Old Testament’! Turning to the first verse of chapter 53, Isaiah asks of the world, “who has believed?… To whom has (it) been revealed?” The answer is “no one”, or maybe “to very few”. Part of the reason for this is found in verse 6: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” The depravity of mankind was the reason for their unbelief. Starting from the second part of the second verse, Isaiah describes the response of the people to this servant of God:

“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… one from whom men hide their faces, he was a despised and we esteemed him not”

Isaiah 53:3

He was rejected by the rebellious people. His appearance was not one that they deemed worthy of respect, making it clear that the people gave respect based only on appearance. John Piper brings an interesting angle on this. He says that the people, being steeped in sin, found the perfect person of Christ to be despicable, either because they did not believe or because they felt condemned by His holiness. So, He was despised, because it is easier to ignore Him than to deal with His convicting holiness. What astounding a reality is this, then? How outrageous a fact is it that it is this servant of God, who was being rejected by all around him, who then took it upon himself to die for our sins!

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, by his wounds we are healed”

Isaiah 53:4-5

The suffering servant.

We all go through some kind of suffering on Earth. But what separates Christ’s suffering from ours is the last part of the verse: “the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him…” What could this possibly mean? How does the punishment Christ endured bring us peace? Because the punishment He endured is not merely physical, it is the ultimate punishment for all our sins. The fulfilment of God’s justice. The conviction and sentencing in the court of the Creator King. This punishment is not your garden variety pain, or physical discomfort, or emotional agony, or difficult life circumstances or discomfort. This is not even persecution in the line of ministry. No, this speaks of the wrath of God. As sinners from birth, true justice is only attained when we, the perpetrators of sin, are dealt the full punishment of the crime, that is eternal separation from the grace of God and final death. That is the “punishment that brings peace”. That is what Christ suffered. For on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.

He suffered for us, the lost sheep. We who were awaiting judgement, awaiting the guaranteed and unrelenting wrath of God as punishment for our sin. We who looked at the requirement of earning God’s favour, of pleasing Him, and recognised the impossibility of it. We who had no strength to hold at bay the sinful nature in us, let alone approach the holiness of God almighty. That is what we were. In line for certain death. Beloved, do you see? Christ suffered that we would never have to. He took upon Himself the burden of our sin that we could not lift. He took the full measure of our punishment in the wrath of God that we would be utterly consumed by.

Now, it doesn’t end there. Lets go to v9:

“though he had done no violence, nor was deceit in his mouth…”

Isaiah 53:9

Do you see the difference? Do you understand it? Not only was he the suffering servant, he was also the sinless servant! That is what enabled him to be the atoning sacrifice for all of humankind. He was the only one. The only one who was holy. Had he been only human, he could have claimed to be the only one to have fulfilled the law and all its requirements, Had he been only human, he would have been the only one to not be required to pay the wages of sin – death. He was the only one who fully pleased God. And yet. “Yet, it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer”.

Pause for effect.

I cannot help but struggle with the thought – if it was the Lord’s will to crush ME, and cause me to suffer, how would I respond? How have I responded so far? Isn’t it so much more common to expect comfort and peace because “God loves me”? We will have peace, yes, but do not be surprised to see that peace manifests itself often in the midst of suffering. How else could it become a peace that “passeth all understanding”? The world cannot make sense of the peace that you have. You know that no present suffering is worth comparing to that of Christ. You know that you’ll never know how much it cost. The rest of the verses in that passage tell of a promise aimed at Christ and it is so beautiful. From v11, it is now God who is speaking:

“… by his knowledge, my servant will justify many… Therefore I will give him a portion among the great.”

Isaiah 53:11

The sinless suffering servant, stained by the sin of mankind, sacrificially slain in our place, He conquered sin and death, and rose from the dead, and has brought salvation to us by His righteousness that we can claim by believing in His name. He is now seated in immeasurable glory at the right hand of the Father, who has handed over all authority in heaven and on earth to the Son, in whom He is most pleased and most glorified, the Lord of hosts, the King of glory, the heir of the Kingdom of God. The promises about Christ apply to us too in our positions as ‘co-heirs with Christ’. What a magnificent reality this is! What an outrageous claim, that we are given the privilege to be sons of God, co-heirs with Christ. How can we ever justify this gift of mercy? How can we come close to repaying our eternal debt? However, beloved, we must take care to not disregard the suffering that comes along with it.

“For as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives so also through Christ, our comfort overflows”

2 Corinthians 1:5

The sufferings of Christ flowing into our lives is taken as a given. It is the assumed starting point when stating that we have comfort through Christ. The promises of Christ are punctuated with the clause: “…because he poured out his life unto death”. Yes, the blessings are too great to count, and the gift is too valuable to measure or repay, but we must not be so consumed by the glorious sight of the exalted conqueror that we forget the humble countenance of the suffering servant. Don’t you see? He has purchased us with His blood, and so, suffering is in our blood, beloved! Remember the apostles, and the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. Remember the Son! As we grow in our relationship with Christ and conform to His image, let us remember that the image of Christ is that of a saviour crushed by the just judge, a Son who drank the cup of suffering according to the will of the Father, a lamb that was slain, the suffering servant.

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