A different kind of Messiah…


 Isaiah was seeking the face of God and asking the question: How will God move on behalf of His people Israel? What will He do?

He was fully aware of the sin of his people, and that, in consequence, the royal line of David was to be cut to a stump, but he also saw that something unexpected  was going to happen – a new shoot springing up from the stump. What would that look like?

“Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
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 by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”

This new “tender shoot” was not going to spring up in “beauty or majesty.” There was going to be no celebrity-status, no swarm of autograph hunters. This was a “servant,” after all. Who looks at servants? You just assume that they do their work and you leave them to it.

But the paradox was that this was a servant “to whom… the arm of the Lord [has] been revealed.” That means one who was aware of and functioning in the strength and purpose of his master. There’s the paradox:  LORD is great but His servant is lowly.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”

If you take this passage without any preconceived notion of knowing to whom or to what it refers, then one obvious picture is drawn: that of the homeless, the refugee, the down-and-out.  That is the one who is held in low esteem, looked down upon, rejected; that is the one “from whom people hide their faces.

So, far from being a king, cossetted in power and privilege, this servant was to be the exact opposite…

And yet, He was a king – a “shoot” out of the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11). And He was the glorious prince of peace (Isaiah 9), Emmanuel, “God with us.” How can these opposites be reconciled?

This is the reason, I think, why Jesus was so cautious about the title “Messiah” when it was bandied about. This is why he said “Tell no one.” He acknowledged that Peter had his eye on the ball when he said “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God” (Mark 8) but then he immediately began to tell the disicples that the Messiah must suffer and die. And Peter reacted badly, misunderstanding. Peter’s point was valid from one point of view. “Messiah” meant “Hero of God” who would save Israel from her enemies. What has that got to do with suffering and dying?

But Isaiah, centuries before, had seen the answer.  God opened the eyes of his prophet to see into the very heart of Christ’s saving work. And the heart of that saving work is substitution. The Messiah is pierced and crushed in our place. The righteous in the place of the unrighteous. The loving shepherd in the place of the lost sheep. The exalted king in the place of the rebel subjects.

So Christ not only died for sinners so that we could be saved, he died for sinners in fulfillment of explicit prophecy so that we could know more surely that we are saved. When you read the story of your salvation in detail 700 years before it happened, you have not only revelation, but validation.

Look at Isaiah 52:13, “Behold my servant will prosper... ” Sometimes in the book of Isaiah the servant of the Lord is the people of Israel. Isaiah 41:8, 10: “But you Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen . . . fear not for I am with you.” Sometimes Israel is pictured as the servant of the Lord.

Sometimes the servant is the prophet Isaiah himself. Isaiah 49:5 “And now says the Lord, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring back Jacob to him… ” Here the prophet Isaiah serves the people.

Neither Israel Nor Isaiah

But in Isaiah 53 the servant can’t be the prophet or the people because the servant is pictured as substituting himself for both the prophet and the people. Verse 4: “Surely he [the Servant] has born our griefs and our sorrows he carried.” Verse 5: “He was pierced through for our transgression, he was crushed for our iniquities.” “Our” means “me, Isaiah” and the people of Israel who will believe on this servant of the Lord. So the servant is not the people and not Isaiah, because he is the substitute for Isaiah and the people. He is their servant.

Jesus the Messiah

Who then was this servant of the Lord? The New Testament answer is that he was Jesus the Messiah. Peter, for example, quotes Isaiah 53:5 (“by his stripes we are healed” in 1 Peter 2:24) and applies it to Jesus. He says in 1 Peter 1:11, “The prophets sought to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.

And in Acts 8 the Ethiopian eunuch was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip joined him in his chariot. The eunuch asked, “Of whom does the prophet speak, of himself, or of someone else?” And Luke tells us that “Philip opened his mouth and beginning from this scripture he preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:35).

Now if Jesus was cautious about the title “Messiah” he readily appropriated the role of servant: “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve [that is, to be the suffering servant] and to give his life a ransom [a substitute!] for many” (Mark 10:45).

Tomorrow, let’s consider that role of being a “ransom for many,” but this morning let’s start the day with Paul’s  “Big Picture” explanation (in Philippians 2):


“Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.”

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