The Servant Who Brings Salvation

Isaiah 49:1-13 (text); Acts 13:44-49
Worship Liturgy

April 10, 2011 •  Download sermon (PDF)

"Christ With A Sword Emerging From His Mouth" by Luigi Sabatelli (1772-1850) (click to enlarge)

"Christ With A Sword Emerging From His Mouth" by Luigi Sabatelli (1772-1850) (click to enlarge)

In the Philippines, the word “servant” evokes a picture of one who works for a family for a very low wage. Many middle- and upper-income homes have “servant’s quarters,” a room separate from the main house. A “domestic helper” is a servant who works for families overseas to make an income higher than local wages.

In the Old Testament, the word used in our text for “servant,” can also mean “slave” or “bondservant,” those who work for no pay, except for food and lodging. One can become so hopelessly indebted to another so that he voluntarily—and unlawfully—sells himself as a slave to the debt-holder (Lev 25:39-41), which is called today as “indentured servitude.”

But the word “servant” is also used in a positive light. A government official is called a “public servant.” Over time, the word evolved into a more high-sounding “minister.” So a “Prime Minister” is merely a “First Servant.” In the New Testament, a “servant” can mean a “slave,” and often used in the sense of a “servant of Christ,” just as pastors often call themselves.

In the Book of Isaiah, we meet a different kind of servant, the Lord’s Servant, who has four songs, verses written in poetry. The first “Servant Song” in Isaiah 42:1-9 focused on the Lord’s chosen Servant who brings justice to the nations. He is not only just, but he is also compassionate to the weak and oppressed. He comes to make old things new, both his people and his creation.

In the second of four Servant songs in our text, the servant of the Lord will restore Israel and save the nations. Who is this Servant?

In verses 1 and 2, the Servant is described as an individual, called from the mother’s womb, given a name by the Lord himself, and with a mouth like a sharp sword. In verse 6, the Servant will bring back “the preserved of Israel.” In verse 7, the Servant is “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation.” Thus, although the Servant is called “Israel” in verse 3, it cannot be Israel itself.

Israel was a rebellious and idolatrous people. As a punishment for their sin, God sent the Babylonians to destroy their nation and take them as slaves in Babylon. How would God then be glorified in this rebellious nation, destroyed, captive and enslaved because of its unending rebellion and idolatry? The righteous and holy God cannot simply ignore sin. The answer is in his chosen Servant.

He will be sent on a mission of salvation—to save his people from sin. From eternity, God called the Servant on this mission. But the Servant is not the Persian King Cyrus who allowed Israel to return to the Promised Land. He is the salvation not only of Israel, but of all nations of the earth. This salvation will be worldwide, bringing indescribable joy to all creation and glory to the Lord.

The Servant Called to Save

The Servant of the Lord demands all nations to listen to him, Listen to me, O coastlands … you peoples from afar.” Those who would listen to the Servant’s words will now come from lands far away, even those beyond the Mediterranean Sea bordering west of Israel.

On whose authority does the Servant speak? Only the Lord can command the nations with authority, “Listen to me!” (Isa 46:3; 48:12; 51:1; 55:2). In eternity past, the Trinitarian God called and named him (verse 1) and commissioned him to a task, “The Lord God has sent me, and his Spirit” (Isa 48:16). Thus, the Servant speaks with the same authority as the Lord, and everyone must listen up!

How will the Lord prepare and equip him for his calling? He will be given a mouth like a sharp-edged sword. Unlike King Cyrus, the Servant does not conquer with a sword, but with the sharp sword of his Word. He is kept safe, just like an arrow safe from the elements in the quiver. He is hidden in the quiver of the Lord, ready to be unsheathed to conquer. He triumphs with his Word from up close, like a sharp sword, and from afar, like a polished arrow.

But even when God prepared and equipped him thoroughly for his calling, he was rejected by Israel, one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation. Because Israel continued in rebellion and unbelief, the Servant does not hide his disappointment and sorrow, confiding in the Lord, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” But even in his apparent failure, he has confidence in the Lord, “Yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” He trusts that God will surely reward his labor.

But this is not to say that the Lord and his Servant are failures. In fact, both of them know that Israel will not return to God. The Servant’s ultimate calling is to bring salvation to all the nations. The calling to “bring back the preserved of Israel” is “too light a thing” for him. For the Lord will send the Servant on a much wider and grander task: that of saving the unbelieving Gentiles. Thus, the Servant becomes “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” When it seemed he failed in saving many people in Israel, he will be victorious in saving a preserved Jewish remnant. And in his enlarged mission, he will bring salvation to the whole world.

The Servant then cannot be the nation Israel. He is distinct from Israel, being called to serve Israel and then the nations, just as Jeremiah was called from his mother’s womb (Jer 1:5). A nation like Israel, full of ungodly rebels and idolaters, cannot be the Servant who would bring justice and salvation to the nations. Why then is the Servant called Israel? It is because he comes from Israel. In Genesis 35:10, Jacob was given the name “Israel”, which means “prince with God,” a name that Israel was not worthy to carry. In fact, the Servant is the true, obedient, righteous Israel, not the rebellious Jews. He is the embodiment of the ideal Israel, what Israel should have been as the nation who should have displayed God’s glory and beauty.

In the end, God will reward and vindicate his chosen Servant. A great reversal of status will take place when this despised, abhorred “servant of rulers” will become Ruler over earthly kings and princes who will bow, “prostrate themselves” at his feet, and serve him.

The Servant Saves the Nations

In verses 1-6, the Servant speaks, but in this second part, verses 7-13, the Lord now speaks. In verse 6, the Servant expresses the difficult task of saving the Jews from their rebellion. But the Servant also spoke of God’s reward for his faithfulness as a servant. Whereas, at first he will be despised and abhorred by Israel, in the end, kings and princes of all nations will worship him.

How would the Servant accomplish the salvation of the nations so that kings will worship him? The Lord will be his help, it is because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” In God’s eternal purpose, the Servant was chosen and called from his mother’s womb. The success of his mission is certain because the one who will help him is the faithful, Holy One.

The Lord answers the Servant’s prayer “in a time of favor.” This recalls the Old Testament Jubilee year when all debts are forgiven, the land rested, and all slaves are restored. The Lord answers the Servant’s prayer in the day of salvation, when he saves his people from sin. The Lord will keep and protect him until his calling of salvation was accomplished.

Isaiah repeats what he said in the first Servant Song in Isaiah 42:6-7: the Servant will be given to the people as a covenant. As the covenant for the people, the Servant will be the Mediator between God and his people. Because the people cannot save themselves, the Servant will be their Savior.

"The Return to Jerusalem after the Captivity in Babylon" by Raphael (1483-1520) (click to enlarge)

"The Return to Jerusalem after the Captivity in Babylon" by Raphael (1483-1520) (click to enlarge)

Centuries before Isaiah’s prophecy, the Jews were taken to Egypt, “the house of bondage,” where they became slaves of cruel masters. Isaiah says that Israel will again be taken captive as slaves in another foreign land, Babylon.

But the Lord, in verses 9-11, will again rescue them and bring them back to their Promised Land in a Second Exodus. The Servant will rebuild the land that is destroyed by their enemies and restore the people back to the land that God promised as their inheritance. He will free the prisoners languishing in dark dungeons and taken to a place where there is light. In their journey back from Babylon, God will feed them, as he fed them during their Exodus from Egypt. The Servant will be their Shepherd, leading them to feed even in bare hills, because God could make barren deserts into green pastures. He will guide them to springs of water to satisfy their thirst. He will protect them from the hot wind and sun. This Servant will be their Shepherd who will gently lead the people back from captivity to their inheritance:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11).

Just as he led his people out of Egypt, God will again bring Israel out of Babylon. No high mountain and low valley will hinder them from returning to the Promised Land. Isaiah repeats what he said in Isaiah 40:3-4, where the picture of the Exodus from Egypt is vivid:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

It is clear that the Exodus from Egypt and Babylon are merely foreshadows of the Servant’s mission of saving his people from sin. The “day of salvation” has arrived with the coming of the Servant (verse 8). Not only Jews will be saved, but people from all the four corners of the world. They “shall come from afar … from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene” (verse 12). Most scholars agree that Syene refers to Egypt, which is to the south of Israel. Thus, “afar” most probably refers to the eastern direction, towards Babylon (“from a far country, from Babylon,” Isa 39:3) to complete the four directions of the geographical compass. This is why Isaiah also has a prophecy where Egypt and Assyria will assemble together to worship God:

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria … and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians (Isa 19:23).

The Servant’s light of salvation will truly reach not only a remnant from Israel, but also the Gentile nations, even to the end of the earth (verse 6).

The Servant’s Comfort Brings Joy

In the primeval world in the Garden of Eden, God promised Adam that the seed of the woman Eve will destroy the serpent who brought sin and death into the world (Gen 3:15). Isaiah 7:14, 9:6 prophesied that a child will be born to a virgin woman. Centuries later, an angel promised a Jewish virgin that she will bear a son, who will be called the Son of the Most High, and who will be sent to save his people from sin (Luke 1:32; Matt 1:21). This Son would be sent as a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32), thus fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 6.

The Son of the Most High thus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 6 of a Servant being sent into the world who will proclaim “the day of salvation” when he first came (2 Cor 6:2). He spoke with authority, “But I tell you,” he would say (Matt 5-7), and his Father commands everyone, “Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). In these last days, God speaks, not through his prophets, but through his Servant-Son (Heb 1:1-2). His words pierced the people like a sword and an arrow, so that they rejected and despised him, even crucifying him on a cross. His death was an apparent failure of his calling. But he knew that his sufferings were necessary for his mission, But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18).

The Lord indeed fulfilled his promise of just recompense, giving him ultimate victory. On the third day after he was buried, he arose from his grave, and those who believed in him began preaching his gospel of salvation in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Servant’s Word has now become a conquering sword going out to all nations (Isa 11:4; Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12). His Word is the sword that is now conquering hearts and minds—not nations and kingdoms—to save all kinds of peoples. He is now calling people out of their dark captivity to sin, death and Satan into his marvelous light (1 Pet 2:9).

After his death and resurrection, God “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,“ so that the whole creation will worship and acknowledge his Kingship and Lordship (Phil 2:9-11). When he returns, he will destroy unbelieving and rebellious nations with the sword of his mouth (Rev 1:16; 19:15). This is how the Servant-Son, not the nation Israel, will bring glory to God the Father’s name.

In Christ, the Lord fulfilled his promise of restoring a remnant of the Jews to the Promised Land. Now God continues to fulfill his other promise of salvation to all nations. Thus, Christ’s completion of his task as the Servant of the Lord in bringing salvation to all nations inspires indescribable joy, both on earth and in heaven. It is not only you his people who will rejoice when salvation comes to your family and friends. You continue to pray for them, and when the Servant rescues them from their captivity to sin, you rejoice and give thanks and praise to God for his love, grace and mercy.

Jesus himself prophesied that many people from all the nations of the earth, both Jews and Gentiles, will be in the kingdom of heaven, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11).

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Servant who will also Shepherd his people, both Jews and Gentiles, and bring them from their captivity to sin and Satan into the kingdom of heaven. As he brings us into our homeland, he will be our pillar of cloud and fire in our wilderness pilgrimage. He will feed us with spiritual manna from heaven and living water, so we will not ever hunger or thirst, except for righteousness. No suffering, persecution, or affliction, temptation, or even death, will prevent him from leading us into paths of righteousness and restoration (Rom 8:38-39).

But Isaiah says in verse 13 that even the whole creation also sings in joy because of Christ’s victory over sin. Just as there is joyful singing after the first Servant Song (Isa 42:10-12), all heaven and earth exults, and even the mountains burst into song! This is joy unknown:

Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Psa 98:8-9).

The Servant Christ’s mission shall not fail. Your witness to the world will not be in vain, because the One who calls you to proclaim his Word promises,

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).

The whole creation, human and non-human, can rejoice at the prospect of the salvation of all nations through the preaching of the gospel of Christ,

The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isa 55:12).

Creation, which has groaned from the day that Adam sinned (Rom 8:19-21), will again be able to sing with joy when the day of redemption finally comes. Because the Lord has brought comfort and given compassion to his people suffering and mourning over their sin.

Not only earth rejoices, but also heaven. God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but instead has pleasure when he repents of sin (Ezek 18:23). The whole heavenly host rejoices over one lost sheep that is found (Luke 15:7, 10). When you became a believer, all the heavenly host sang for joy. And when someone you know repents of sin, all heaven and earth again sing for joy in praise of the Lord (Isa 44:23).

This is why in Acts 13:47-48, the Gentiles, who heard the gospel proclaimed by Paul as the fulfillment of this second Servant Song, “began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord.”

Conclusion

You who are followers of the Servant of the Lord are also called to bring the gospel of salvation to others—family, friends, officemates, and classmates. As God called Christ to a mission of salvation, Christ also calls his chosen ones to the same task. Paul says he was “working together with [Christ] in this “day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:1-2). Not that you are also called to save God’s people, but to bring the gospel of salvation in Christ to others.

But like the Servant Christ, you will surely be rejected, ridiculed and even persecuted because of the gospel, but your witness comes with the Lord’s authority, and you are not laboring in vain (Isa 65:23). What could Christ have felt after endless days of unfruitful reasoning with the unbelieving Jews? Or after three years of teaching the Twelves, they still “didn’t get it” and so he asked them, “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67)? In the same way, you might become weary of this rejection and all the sufferings and afflictions in living a life of faith. You might even think you’re a failure.

But we follow Christ especially in the confidence in his Father, the Lord God, who called him and empowered him for his mission. Because in the end, God promises a great harvest of souls. It is because Christ the Servant is the one who “commanded us … [to] bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47).

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