Explaining Messiah (Isaiah 53)

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Isaiah 53 begins, “Who has believed our message?” The answer often seems to be: scarcely anyone. But why so? Why did Isaiah then, and why do we today, find such unbelief when the Gospel message is proclaimed?

One answer is given in verse 6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” This is the essence of rebellion and unbelief—a people going their own way.

The prevailing condition – Going your own way

We once watched a flock of sheep being guided into the open gate of a field, when at the last possible moment, the lead sheep suddenly, unaccountably, took a lurch to the left and led the entire flock over a broken wall into the wrong field. As we sat in the car watching, waiting to drive past, we saw the display of frustration rippling across the farmer’s face. It told us one important fact: sheep can be pretty stupid.

But it’s not much different with humans. Einstein said “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

God created all people for his glory (Isaiah 43:7). But how many today keep this before their eyes and ask each day, let alone each hour: How shall I not go astray from the way of God? How shall I escape the pride and presumption of going my own way when God made me for his way and for his honor?

Not many? In fact the easiest way not to feel like a rebel against the King is not to think about the King (or the Shepherd). If you can manage to put him out of your mind, then nothing in the world seems more natural than to do your own thing and go your own way. It doesn’t feel like rebellion. It feels like responsibility.

And this is the situation with which Isaiah begins. This is what made the coming of Messiah essential. All of us are rebel subjects of a King. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do. And to keep God’s will from conflicting with our own, we just don’t think about him. “All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way.

So God commissions  a servant to address the situation.But how is he treated? Verse 3: “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, he was despised and we did not esteem him.”

The servant is treated the way we treat God

Why did he receive such treatment? The answer is given in verse 2: “He grew up before him [God] like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; he has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him. Nor appearance that we should be attracted to him.”

In other words, his whole demeanor, his style, his view of life and money and possessions and lust and prayer and worship and pride and humility and fear and faith—none of it endorsed our own rebellion. We didn’t feel endorsed around Jesus. He was so lowly and unimpressive that our aspirations for power and reputation felt evil. His happy poverty made our wanting more and more feel foolish. His willingness to suffer for others made our craving for comforts feel selfish.

And so to protect ourselves we despised him. We even hoped it was God that struck him. That would be a good endorsement of our rejection. And we rejected him. He was offensive to us.

In fact, we treated him the same way that we treat God.

“Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up his dream for the world.”

But God knew how things would turn out. He wasn’t surprised or shocked. After all, he did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). This is the “But God…” of the meaning of Messiah. He is our ransom – our subsitute – and he takes upon himself the due price of our rebellion. The Messiah is God’s reply to this impossible situation. As someone said: “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up his dream for the world.”

How does he do so?

Verse 4a: “Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried . . . ” Verse 5: “But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed.” And verse 6b: “But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him.

This is the great good news that God has for rebel subjects who are willing to lay down their rebellion. Instead of collapsing in grief over our rejection, he bears our griefs. Instead of increasing our sorrows, he carries our sorrows. Instead of avenging our transgressions, he is pierced for them in our place. Instead of crushing us for our iniquities, he is crushed for them as our substitute. And all the punishment that belongs to us for our rebellion he takes on himself in order that we might have peace and be healed.

You don’t have to understand all the intricacies of how this works in order to be healed and forgiven any more than you have to understand internal combustion in order to drive a car. God tells us what we need to know. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. That’s the gospel.

Seeing for real – seeing for yourself

But that’s not all of it. There’s more. The gospel doesn’t save unless we see it and grasp it for our own. But rebel subjects don’t do that. At least not on our own. But Isaiah says that something will happen—and this is the fourth stage of Isaiah’s message: there will be restored sight to the rebel subjects.

Isaiah 52:15: “He [the Servant] will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand.”

God will not let the work of his Servant be done in vain. He will bare his arm and sprinkle the nations with the healing blood of his Servant (v. 15a) and the kings of the earth will see and understand. Their eyes will be opened. Their sight will be restored.

Long ago, when I was a teacher of eight-year olds, I remember going through some abstruse piece of mathematical engineering. The six-times table, possibly. And I remember this little lass with a face of screwed-up concentration saying, “I just don’t get it!” But eventually, through a combination of her arduous application and my teacherly brilliance, she came to say “Oh, I get it. I see it now.”

It’s not enough for this fact of salvation to be done. You have to “see” it for yourself.

Paul quoted this verse in Romans 15:21 to justify his hope in the success of frontier missions. “I aspired to preach the gospel not where Christ was already named . . . But as it is written, ‘Those who had no news of him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand’

In other words, the gospel of Isaiah—the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news not only because the heart of it is God’s rejected Servant dying as a ransoming Substitute for rebel subjects, but also because God guarantees that he will bare his arm and open the eyes of kings to see and believe. He will restore sight.

Isaiah 52:13 begins, “Behold, my servant shall prosper!” He will succeed. His substitutionary ransom will not abort. God has sent the servant; God will make sure that people see the servant. He will restore sight so that rebel subjects see the servant no longer as rejected but as the glorious ransoming substitute that he really is.

Time for a hush

Which brings us to one last glimpse through Isaiah’s eyes (again in 52:15). When God sprinkles the nations with the blood of his Servant and grants the kings of the earth to see what they had not been told and to understand what they had not heard, the result will be reverent silence: “The kings will shut their mouth on account of him.

And why do they do this? Isaiah 52:13 gives the answer: “Behold, my servant will prosper, he will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted.”

The kings will be silent because the suffering servant is triumphant. He is high. He is lifted up. He is greatly exalted. This is what God grants them the eyes to see—the majesty of Jesus. The despised and rejected servant is the Lord of glory. Let there be a reverent silence before him. Time for a hush.

 

This is drawn from a John Piper sermon.

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