Our suffering servant.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 December 2019

Isaiah 53.

Mixed in with all the Messianic prophecies about a king who’d restore Israel, conquer the world, and set aright everything gone wrong, there are also prophecies about a suffering servant who’d get crushed.

We Christians likewise recognize these prophecies to be about Jesus. But people only realized it after the fact. Before Jesus went through his suffering, Pharisees believed these prophecies can’t be about Messiah. He’s gonna conquer the world! It’s gonna be an easy victory, achieved through the Almighty’s power. Suffering and death? Has to be some other guy.

Y’might recall as soon as Jesus brought up the very idea this suffering servant was him, his best student Simon Peter recoiled. “This will never happen to you,” was his rebuke. Mt 16.22 Human nature being what it is, we pick and choose the bible passages we like, skip the rest… and consequently miss most of the story. ’Cause the parts we avoid are frequently the really important parts. Jesus’s death saves the world just as much, if not more so, than his second coming will.

The Pharisees believed Messiah would come once, to conquer the world. They presumed he’d do it same as other conquerors: Take it by force, and make humanity submit. Smite his enemies with an iron scepter. Politically-minded Christians figure they can take over their society on his behalf, and make our nation into an outpost of his kingdom. They don’t realize Jesus demonstrated, by humility and self-sacrifice, not conquest, how very much he deserves the world as his inheritance. They don’t get how he gets people to submit to him out of love, out of recognizing the absolute wisdom and rightness of his rule. That’s much harder to achieve than mere force. (Plus there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in the idea of forcing people to submit, instead of getting ’em to want to. Such is human nature.)

But winning the world through his suffering, rather than seizing it by force, is what Isaiah saw him do. And reported thisaway.

Isaiah 53 KWL
1 Does anyone believe what we’ve reported?
The LORD’s arm is upon this person who’s been revealed.
2 He grew up in God’s presence like a sapling, like something rooted in dry ground.
We could see nothing honorable in his form. He wasn’t anything to look at.
3 People dismissed and refused to hear him. A man in pain, familiar with illness,
dismissed like one who hides his face from people—we took no account of him.
4 But in fact he’d taken up our illness. He carried our pain.
We figured he’d been smited: God had struck him down to humble him,
5 but he was wounded for our rebellion, crushed for our evil deeds.
Our peace came from his punishment. His beating brought us healing.
6 Like sheep, all of us have wandered off; we all went our own way.
The LORD put all our evil deeds on him.
7 He was abused and humiliated, and didn’t open his mouth.
Like a sheep to slaughter, or an ewe to her shearers, is silent: He didn’t open his mouth.
8 Arrested, judged, he was carried off. His peers—who spoke up for him
when he was cut off from the land of the living? beaten for the evil deeds of my people?
9 They put him in the grave with evildoers, with the rich in death,
though he’d treated no one violently. No deceit was in his mouth.
10 The LORD was pleased to crush him, to make him unwell, to make his soul a guilt offering,
and see his seed survive. God will prolong its days. The LORD is pleased to make it prosper in his hand.
11 God will be satisfied by the trouble of this servant’s soul:
He will be right in knowing the righteous one, my servant, will bear the weight of both the great and the evildoers.
12 Therefore I will give him something from the great ones. He’ll be given spoil with the mighty ones.
For under them, his soul was poured out to death. He was counted with the rebels.
He carried the sin of the great. He brings light to the rebels.

Fulfilled in the first coming.

To Christians, Isaiah 53 so obviously sounds like Jesus’s suffering and death, we can’t help but read him into this entire prophecy.

And scripture confirms this. When the evangelist Philip met the Ethiopian Jew enroute to Gaza, the fellow was reading Isaiah 53 and asked Philip, “I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?” Ac 8.34 KJV Philip’s response was to immediately point to the “some other man”: Jesus. Ac 8.35

The New Testament quotes Isaiah 53 a bunch of times. Sometimes directly, quoting “Does anyone believe what we’ve reported?” Is 53.1, Jn 12.38, Ro 10.16 Usually by pointing out how Jesus fulfilled it: He took up our illnesses and carried our pain, Is 53.4, Mt 8.17 his beating brought us healing, Is 53.4, Mt 8.17 and no deceit was in his mouth; Is 53.9, 1Pe 2.22 he doesn’t have any behind-the-scenes secret evil plan, but despises hypocrisy. Jesus himself pointed out how he’d be counted among rebels. Is 53.12, Lk22.37 Messiah is all over this chapter.

But Pharisees then, and many Jews today, somehow can’t see Messiah in it. Generally because they choose not to. If a devout Jew (who already gets the concept of atonement, ’cause they celebrate the Day of Atonement every year) is familiar with Christianity and how Jesus died, and we read ’em Isaiah 53 and don’t tell ’em where it’s from, they nearly always assume this is a New Testament quote, specifically about Jesus. They’re stunned to discover it’s Isaiah.

But they’re right: It is specifically about Jesus. Thing is, their ideas about Messiah, then and now, don’t include Messiah’s death. They don’t expect him to die. They expect him to reign forever—and that’s all.

Most Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53 claim it’s really about the suffering of the entire nation of Israel. Israel suffers for the sins of the world. And depending on how much they personally identify with Israel, they figure they suffer for the sins of the world. Supposedly this is why Jews have gone through so many horrible, terrible experiences, far worse than they deserve: They spin verse 10 to mean “The LORD was pleased to crush us, make us unwell, make our souls a guilt offering.” God’s gonna save the world through Israel, like he said; but instead of saving the world through Israel’s Messiah, supposedly he’ll save the world through the suffering of the entire nation of Israel.

And in this way, Israel’s hardships aren’t really the low point of the cycle of history—the consequences of only pretending to follow God, but not really. Of only obeying God on the high holidays, while living like pagans the rest of the year. Of limiting the Law to one’s religious life, but their politics shuts out widows and orphans and foreigners. Of a lifestyle of karma instead of grace… but insisting they really follow God, who only rewards the deserving, like them. Their sufferings are recast as noble. They suffer because they’re God’s chosen people, and if they buck up and ride it out, their reward will be great.

To be fair, we Christians develop the very same martyr complex whenever we supposedly suffer for being Christian. In reality we’re also suffering the consequences of being sinners, jerks, and hypocrites. Jesus warned us we’d be persecuted, so we assume every hardship is this “persecution”—but the reality is it’s often God’s correction. We’re just as guilty of taking Jesus out of context, as the Jews are in taking Isaiah out of context.

Messiah Jesus is the suffering servant. In his first coming, he took on Israel and the world’s sins so he could “bear the weight of both the great and the evildoers,” and make us right with God. This way we can participate in his rule. He wants relationships with his subjects; he doesn’t just want to trod on us as conquered subjects, but to co-rule with us as eager supporters and friends. To do this, he had to get sin—namely our sins—out of the way.

So he conquered sin. It was a much greater foe than any political entity, any world superpower, even Satan. He made the world—and us his followers—able to fight sin with him, and prepare for his second coming. That done, he will come to rule the world.

I can totally understand those folks who wanted him to achieve both things in his first coming. Feels like it would’ve been easier—for us, anyway. But Jesus wants us to be with him more so than he wants us under him. He is a compassionate God, as Isaiah 53 makes crystal clear.

Scriptures for Advent.