Date: December 15, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Isaiah 52:13–53:12
The Book of Isaiah is sometimes called the Fifth Gospel, and there is no better example of why than our passage this morning. Since chapter 40, the prophet Isaiah has proclaimed good news for the people of God. That good news is simply but wonderfully this – that God himself is coming to deliver his people and to reign over them as their King in everlasting peace. This has been the prophet’s consistent hope – good news will come.
But at the same time, there has also been this question lurking in the background of Isaiah’s ministry. If God’s people are sinful, then how can they ever dwell again with the Holy God? If the problem is rebellion against God, then what could possibly reconcile rebels to the very God they have defied? Do you see the problem lurking around Isaiah’s good news? We certainly want this good news, but at the same time, how can the holy God be reconciled with such rebellious, sinful people?
And our passage this morning is the remedy to that problem. More than any other text, chapter 53 shows us why Isaiah is sometimes called the Fifth Gospel. In these verses, we hear what is at the heart of Isaiah’s good news. It is the saving work of the Servant of the Lord, who shockingly suffers on behalf of his people, even to the point of laying down his life as the sacrifice for their sin. For Isaiah, this is why good news is coming, and for the Christian, there can be no doubt that Isaiah is anticipating here the work of Jesus Christ. All through the NT, Isaiah’s words are cited in connection with the work of Christ. The references are too numerous to list, but the overwhelming weight of the NT is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Servant of the Lord who suffers for his people. Jesus is the One pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.
And so, as we study this chapter today, we need to do so with one eye on Isaiah’s words and the other on the work of Jesus Christ. How does Isaiah help us see and treasure the Savior, Jesus Christ? And to help guide us in our study, I want you to notice a key truth from v1 of chapter 53. You see where Isaiah speaks in v1 of the arm of the Lord. That phrase – the arm of the Lord – is like the North Star in navigating this rich passage. Since chapter 40, Isaiah has spoken of God’s mighty arm, and it was through that arm that God would redeem his people. Now here in chapter 53, we learn that God’s arm is not merely his power. God’s Arm is a Person, the Servant of the Lord, and this Arm is the Savior through whom God will deliver his people.
So, that is our guiding truth. There are five stanzas in this passage, and in each stanza, we see something remarkable, something astounding about the Savior, this Arm of the Lord who comes to deliver God’s people. Specifically, we should note the Savior’s Glory, his Suffering, his Sacrifice, his Humility, and finally his Triumph.
The Glory of the Savior
Let’s begin, then, in vv13-15 of chapter 52, where we see the Glory of the Savior. This first stanza opens with God’s view of his Servant. Notice the three-fold praise of v13. The Servant will be high, lifted up, and exalted, God says. Those descriptions are used a few other places in Isaiah, and they are applied only to God. Right away, it’s clear that the Servant of the Lord cannot be the nation of Israel, and it certainly cannot be the prophet himself. No, the Servant, just as we saw in chapter 42, is the Messiah. And strikingly, the Messiah is described here with terms that are only used for God. Already, then, our gospel senses are heightened, and we’re beginning to understand how this text leads us on to see Christ.
But v13 also gives us a preview of the Servant’s work, at least from God’s perspective. Notice how God says the Servant shall act wisely. You could also translate that as the Servant will succeed, the Servant will fulfill what God sends him to do. And that’s really the heart of biblical wisdom, isn’t it? It’s not only knowing the right thing but also doing the right thing in faithfulness to God. And that is part of the Servant’s glory here in Isaiah. He will act with wisdom, and in doing so, he will certainly accomplish the plan of God.
But then we come to v14, and we find that the Servant’s glory is not immediately recognized by the world. Notice in v14 how people are astonished at the Servant. He doesn’t look like what the world expects – that’s the point of the language about his appearance being marred and his form being beyond recognition. Instead of receiving the servant, the world is repelled. They find the Servant appalling. Notice the tension that is created from the start. The Servant is glorious, he is exalted, v13. And at the same time, he is repulsive to the world’s way of thinking. It’s a small but clear indication that if you are going to receive this glorious Savior, you’re going to need more than worldly wisdom. You’re going to need the very revelation of God himself.
In fact, that is what God implies in v15. The kings of this earth do not understand the Servant of the Lord, but there is a day coming when they will see, when their eyes will be open and they will marvel at this One whom God has raised up to redeem his people. Even in the midst of the world’s misunderstanding, there is this note of glory, this expectation that the Servant will be just as God says – high, lifted up, and exalted.
The Suffering of the Savior
Even so, the mixture of glory and rejection in the first stanza leads us very quickly to the second, vv1-3 of chapter 53. We know people will be astonished at the Servant, but here we begin to see how deep this rejection runs. That’s the truth of this second stanza – it is the Suffering of the Savior. V1 carries on with the astonishment we just read in v14. When people hear of the Servant, they cannot believe what they hear. How can this be the Arm of the Lord, the world asks? The Arm of the Lord is mighty and strong, but this Servant is marred and weak. How can he be the Arm of the Lord? Left to ourselves, we will not believe the good news of the Servant. It defies our worldly understanding.
And v2 gives us the reason for this persistent unbelief. Notice how v2 describes the Servant of the Lord like a young plant, like a root struggling to break through the dry ground. The idea here is that the Servant’s origins look unimpressive. He comes from nowhere, so you should expect nothing from him. The Servant doesn’t look like a leader or a deliverer. He barely looks like man!
And so, just like a gardener would quickly cut off such a measly little root, so also the world utterly despises the Servant of the Lord. Notice v3, where the Servant’s suffering is more fully described. He is despised and rejected by men, God says. The point here is not so much hatred as it is indifference. The world sees the Servant and thinks, “Why bother? He’s nothing. He’s useless. Cast him off, we won’t miss anything.” And that makes the Servant a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Sorrow and heartache are the Servant’s only friends. That’s the image here. In the world’s eyes, the Servant is not even worthy of a second glance.
We overlook this point sometimes in the Christmas story, but the circumstances of Jesus’ birth fit precisely with what we read here in Isaiah 53. Think about it. Being born in a stable is about as unimpressive as you can get. And being born to a virgin mother is a pretty sure path to being despised, isn’t it? Add to that the fact that Jesus grew up in Nazareth of Galilee, which was looked down up by many in Israel, and you get exactly what Isaiah foresaw in vv2-3. The Servant would be overlooked and despised, and when the Lord Jesus came to earth, that is surely what he experienced. We’ll never know the full measure of our Lord’s suffering, brothers and sisters, but it is not an exaggeration to think of his every step on earth as being marked with heartache and sorrow.
And you know, that says something about us. Humanity’s response to the Savior tells us something about the depth of our problem. Just like Isaiah foresaw, on our own we have nothing but contempt for the Lord Jesus. Left to ourselves, we will scoff at him and overlook him along with everyone else. That is the staggering depth of corruption that sin has inflicted on human nature. We can look the Servant of the Lord in the face, and we can reject him. We can see the glory of God in Jesus Christ, and on our own, we think, “Not interested.” Do you see the horrible reality of fallen human nature? We’re not simply sick; we’re spiritually dead, spiritually blind to the point where we can see the truth but not see it. We can hear the good news but not hear it. That’s who we are on our own – we’re the people of v3, despising and rejecting the Servant of the Lord.
And that means nothing less than divine revelation can save our souls. In order for sinners like us to be saved, it will take an act of God to open our eyes. It will take an invasion of grace to give life to our dead hearts. If you are here this morning and you do not know Jesus Christ as Lord, then above all, this is what you need. You cannot bring yourself into the kingdom of God. Your salvation is not dependent on you making the right decision. No, your salvation is dependent on God. And listen, friend, that is good news! If salvation depended on you and me, then do you know what? We would never be saved. We would remain in v3 for the remainder of our lives, despising and rejecting the Savior.
But the good news of the gospel is that God, upon whom our salvation depends – God is gracious. And even now, he is working through the preaching of his Word to call sinners like us to himself. If you do not know Christ Jesus today, then Isaiah’s words are calling you to believe. And perhaps most amazing of all, in hearing these very words from Scripture, God’s grace comes to sinners like us. And that means, friend, God’s Word is both calling you to believe and giving you the grace to do so.
The Sacrifice of the Savior
The reality of sin’s corruption that we’ve just considered actually leads us into the third stanza. What could possibly atone for the deep and pervasive corruption that sin has inflicted on our hearts? The answer comes in vv4-6. This is the heart of the passage, and here, we see the Sacrifice of the Savior. Even a cursory reading of these verses clues you in to the theme of the stanza. Sacrificial language is all through this section, but nowhere more clearly than v6. Notice how God lays on the Servant the iniquity, the sin of his people. That verb – to lay upon – is also used in Leviticus 16, where the Day of Atonement was prescribed for the nation of Israel. You may remember the details. The priest would place his hands on the head of the goat, the scapegoat, and then the priest would confess the people’s sin before God. And in that act of confession, the sins of the people were laid on the scapegoat, so that the goat bore those sins away.
That’s the background here in Isaiah 53. This is sacrificial language, but astoundingly, it’s the Servant who is the Sacrifice. It’s not a goat being sent away, it’s not merely a lamb being sacrificed. It’s the Servant himself, the very Arm of the Lord. Again, this is the heart of the passage, so we’re going to slow down here and note some important features of the Servant’s sacrifice. It’s not an overstatement to say that our salvation depends on these features, so let’s note them together.
To begin with, we see how the Servant is sacrificed as our Substitute. In the course of reading the passage, you might make the mistake of thinking that the Servant suffers because he is a sinner. That’s why he is despised and rejected – because he deserves it! But that’s not the case. The Servant suffers in the place of his people. Note the pronouns of v4 – he bore our griefs, he carried our sorrows. It’s even more powerful in v5 – he was pierced for our transgression, crushed for our iniquities. The Servant does not suffer for his own sake. He suffers as our Substitute, bearing the sins we committed.
And that reveals the second feature. The Servant’s substitutionary sacrifice was penal in nature. That is, he received the punishment our sins deserved. Notice in v5 where Isaiah says the chastisement that brought us peace was placed upon the Servant. That’s the language of punishment, the language of judgment. Remember, every sin deserves the wrath and curse of God. In fact, God’s holiness demands that every sin be punished in accord with God’s justice.
And amazingly, Isaiah tells us the punishment our sin deserved was placed upon the Servant. Brothers and sisters, this is what is happening at the cross of Jesus Christ. As the Lord of Glory hangs there on the tree, he is receiving the chastisement, the punishment, the wrath our sin deserved. And listen, part of loving the gospel is recognizing yourself in his suffering. Those were my sins he endured. Those were my wounds the Savior received. That was my forsaken cry he declared on the cross. The Savior endured all of that in my place. What I deserved, Christ took. That’s the cross of Christ, brothers and sisters, and through the Spirit, the prophet Isaiah foresees that work of grace here in chapter 53.
We should also understand that the Servant’s sacrifice was personal. This is massively significant. Notice the very personal language used in these verses. It is clear that the Servant suffers in his body. He is pierced. He is wounded. Now, wounds are not theoretical, are they? You cannot be pierced or crushed in an impersonal way. In other wounds, Scripture is not using imagery here or speaking metaphorically. No, this is personal. In offering himself as the sacrifice for sin, the Servant bore the punishment personally, in his physical body.
Brothers and sisters, I hope you see here why Advent is essential to the gospel. Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. Without the Servant receiving these wounds, there is no healing. And that means the first step in the glorious good news of the gospel is the Incarnation of the Son of God. As the eternal Son takes on human flesh in Mary’s womb, already his destination is set for the cross. There is no forgiveness apart from the Savior’s blood shed, and there is no blood to shed apart from the Incarnation.
Think of how this reshapes the Advent season. Think of how this deepens the wonder of Christmas time. It’s not disconnected from the gospel, is it? As we sing the carols and light the candles and reflect on Bethlehem, we are not simply observing the miracle of God made Flesh. We are also being prepared for Good Friday, for the cross of Jesus Christ. In other words, brothers and sisters. of all the reasons for joy at Christmas, the gospel stands as the pinnacle – not simply because Jesus was born, but because Jesus was born in human flesh that would one day bear wounds we deserved. The Servant’s sacrifice was personal.
Finally, we should note that the Servant’s sacrifice was effective. Notice the finality, the effectiveness of v5. “By his wounds we are healed.” Oh that we had the time today to unpack the glory of that little phrase! By his wounds, we are healed. The Servant of the Lord didn’t make healing merely possible. He accomplished that healing in the shedding of his blood. And his blood was not shed in vain. Every moment of suffering on the Savior’s part was purposeful, and every aspect of his sacrifice was powerfully and eternally effective. The Servant was not pierced at random. He was pierced for his people. He was wounded for his straying sheep. And in receiving their punishment, the Servant accomplished their salvation, once and for all.
Brothers and sisters, what we’ve just briefly described from these verses is nothing less than the love of God for his people. Nearly everyone you meet will agree that God is love, and indeed, the Bible itself says just that – God is love. And yet, we often miss the connection between God’s love and the cross. In fact, many folks find the idea of God punishing his Son on the cross to be the opposite of love, almost barbaric to some people. But that’s not at all how Scripture speaks of God’s love. Throughout the NT, you find the cross of Christ not in opposition to God’s love, but the very expression of it. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” 1 John 4. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” Romans 5. “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” Galatians 2. Over and over, this is the note the NT keeps singing – the cross of Christ is the love of God displayed. And Isaiah’s contribution is to help us see that this love was costly, it was sacrificial, it was to bear our punishment, and it was effective.
One of the great blessings of Advent is that is reminds us, year after year, of the unfathomable love of God. And nowhere do we see that love more clearly or more fully than in the sacrifice of the Savior on the cross. If you struggle with doubting the Father’s love, don’t look for answers in God’s willingness to make much of you. Look to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, and behold again the rock-solid, unchanging, life-altering proof that the Father loves his children, and he loves them to the end.
The Humility of the Savior
We have to keep moving, though if you’re like me, you’d probably prefer simply to camp out in vv4-6. But let’s note, just briefly, the final two truths here about the Savior. The fourth truth comes in vv7-9, where we see the Humility of the Savior. There is a lot in these verses, but the main point is that the Servant of the Lord suffered innocently and willingly. He did not deserve to die, for he was innocent before God. Notice v9 – he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. In both word and deed, the Servant was innocent.
But at the same time, the Servant did not object either. He did not protest his case. Instead, the Servant went willingly to his end. Notice the language in v7 – how the Servant went like a lamb to the slaughter. Sheep are known for being very docile, even to the point of going willingly to be sheared. They don’t buck and run; they go along quietly. And so it was with the Servant of the Lord. He did not protest. He went willingly to the end in his innocence.
Think of the Gospel accounts of the Lord Jesus’ trial. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe Jesus’ silence before the Jewish Council. Remember, they are falsely accusing him of heinous crimes that are worthy of death, and yet Jesus stands there, silent in his innocence. Why is the Son of God silent before his accusers? There are a number of reasons, but none more powerful than Isaiah 53. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, so the Lord Jesus opened not his mouth.
But I want to make sure we don’t misunderstand Jesus’ silence. When Jesus remains silent in fulfillment of Isaiah 53, he is not displaying weakness. He’s not silent because he’s afraid. No, Jesus is silent because he is strong, so strong, in fact, that he willingly submits himself to the Father’s will. And what was the end result of this strength? Do you remember the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 2? “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” That is the reward of Jesus’ humility. Because the Savior humbled himself in obedience, the Father exalted him to the highest place. There is no weakness at work in Jesus’ silence. There is only strength, the strength of submission to God that leads finally to glory.
The Triumph of the Savior
All of that to say, brothers and sisters, as we praise God for Christ this Advent season, one particular reason for praise is his humility – because without Christ’s humility, without his strong, silent submission to the Father, there is no salvation. In that sense, you could say that there has never been a silence so loud as that of the Lord Jesus on his way to the cross.
And so, we come to the end of our far-too-brief overview of this magnificent passage. Vv10-12 give us the fifth truth, and that is the Triumph of the Savior. The overall point of this stanza is that death is not the end for the Servant of the Lord. Instead, there is victory that the Servant will enjoy and then share with his people. This hope of triumph informs every verse in the stanza.
Notice v10, where the Servant will see his offspring and prolong his days. Even though the Servant dies, there is what can only be called a resurrection to new life, v10 implies. The Servant will prolong his days. He will triumph, and God’s plan will be accomplished through him.
Notice also v11, where the Servant is satisfied with the outcome of his anguish. His suffering causes the unrighteous to be counted as righteous before God. Because the Servant bore their iniquities, the Servant’s people are justified before the Holy God. Again, the note is triumph, victory, success. Suffering is not the end for the Servant of the Lord.
And notice finally v12, where Servant receives his reward and then shares it among his people. The language here is that of conquest, where a champion who has won the battle receives his share and then divides it among his men. And that is what the Servant will do. Having borne the sins of his people, the Servant receives his reward from God, and then amazingly, the Servant shares his reward with his people.
Overall, then, the final stanza of this incredible passage is just jammed full with hope. Yes, the Servant is despised and rejected. He is pierced and crushed. He is wounded and led to the slaughter. He is cut off from the land of the living. But in the end, this suffering, sacrificial Servant triumphs and receives his glory.
Brothers and sisters, is this not the gospel testimony of Jesus Christ, on display some 700 years before he came? Having suffered to the point of death, the Lord Jesus rose again on the third day, his days never to end but to stretch into all eternity. And having conquered death, the Lord Jesus received all power and authority from his heavenly Father, and now through his Word, the Lord Jesus shares that authority with his church. “All authority on heaven and earth is given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” the Risen Christ commanded us.
But even more, the resurrection life that Christ secured in his suffering, he now gives to all who trust in his name. Like a mighty warrior, Christ crushed death, and through the gospel, he shares that victory with us, his people.
And most astounding of all, having been made sin for us, the Lord Jesus becomes our righteousness before God. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” 2 Corinthians 5. Do you see how these truths that Isaiah foresaw have been realized in the gospel of Jesus Christ? His victory is our victory. His triumph is our hope! And as the gospel tells us, this triumph is nothing short of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Brothers and sisters, what a rich treasure we have been given in the Lord Jesus! Please understand that for believers in Christ today, we stand in a better position than even Isaiah. The prophet foresaw these truths some 700 years before Christ, but he saw them dimly. We, on the other hand, see them in the clear light of the gospel. We are able to rejoice in the fullness of what Isaiah saw in shadows. That is a blessing beyond measure! And so, I can think of no better conclusion than Paul’s words in Romans 11 – “Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgment and how inscrutable his ways! …For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.”