“Therefore I have set my face like a flint” (Isaiah 50:7)
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51)
|A Palm Sunday Sermon on April 17, 2011||Download PDF sermon|
Text: Isaiah 50:4-9 • Readings: Isaiah 50:1-11; Luke 9:51-56; Matthew 21:1-9
Today, we remember that Sunday when Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem. He knew he was riding to his death, when three times before he determined that the time has come for him to “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21). Four times, he revealed this mission to his perplexed disciples. Wasn’t he going to become the king of the Jews? How could he become a king when he’s dead?
The four Servant Songs of Isaiah progressively revealed the mission of the Servant of the Lord. In the first Song, he brings justice to the nations, and in the second, he is the salvation of Israel and the nations. How would he accomplish this mission to bring justice and salvation to the world? We have a faint hint in the first Song that there would encounter difficulties, but he would not “grow faint or be discouraged” (Isa 42:3). In the second Song, we learn that the Servant’s difficulties will be caused by great opposition from others; he will be “deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers” (Isa 49:6).
In both first and second songs, the Servant is confident that he would complete his mission and be victorious in the end because the Lord will help and sustain him, “I am the Lord … I will take you by the hand and keep you” (Isa 42:6). And although he feels he has “labored in vain … spent my strength for nothing and vanity,” yet he is sure that God is with him, “yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God” (Isa 49:4).
As he now rides into Jerusalem, the throngs acclaim him to be their coming king, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt 21:9). But picture the face of this Servant. It is not a picture of pride as he is proclaimed king. For although he would be a glorious triumphant King one day, this day was the beginning of his many sufferings leading to his cruel death on the cross. Instead, his face is a picture of humility, as a silent lamb willingly led to slaughter.
But face of this Servant is also a picture of determination and confidence, “I have set my face like a flint.” He has been taught by the Lord, and he is now resolved to obey his commands. The words of the Lord will now sustain him through all the shame and suffering he has to endure to do the Lord’s will. He is confident that no one will be able to lay any charge against him, and in the end, the Lord will vindicate and reward his labors, while his enemies will be destroyed.
To Obey the Sovereign Lord
To prepare his Servant for his mission to bring justice and salvation to the world, the Lord equips him with all the necessary tools. In the first Servant song, the Lord puts his Spirit upon him, while in the second, God gave him a mouth like a sharp sword and perseverance in the face of opposition.
In this third Servant song, the Servant has confidence in his appeals to God for help, and four times, he ascribes the title Sovereign Lord to Yahweh. God helps him in two ways: he gives him a tongue to speak God’s words and an ear to hear God’s teachings.
As Yahweh gave Moses the words his mouth will speak before Israel and before Pharaoh (Exod 4:11-12), so will he now give the Servant a tongue to speak the words of disciples whom God has taught. As in Isaiah 42:2, the Servant’s function is to proclaim the words of the Lord to the nations. That the Servant is intimately related to the Lord is the reason why he is called a “learned” or “taught” disciple.
So the Servant does not learn by himself or by his power, but through his close relationship with the Sovereign Lord. “Morning by morning he awakens my ear,” the Servant declares. The Lord awakens him every morning so the Servant will hear what the Lord has to teach him, until he is “learned.”
With his listening ear, the Servant is prepared to obey the Sovereign Lord. His mission can only be completed by being obedient to what he learns from the Lord. In the Old Testament, an open ear also means obedience. In Psalm 40, King David says to the Lord, “You have given me an open ear” (verse 6), which is another way of saying, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (verse 8). The servant’s delight is to obey the will of the Lord.
Isaiah 6:9-10 uses this metaphor of hearing and obeying. The Lord asks Isaiah to tell Israel that part of God’s judgment against their rebellion would be:“Keep on hearing, but do not understand.” Because if they did, they might “turn and be healed” by God. Even today, when parents are angry with their children, they would strongly tell them, “Do you hear me?” They’re not asking if they need a hearing aid, but, “Will you obey?”
But the Servant’s learning is not only for his own. The Lord gives him learning for another purpose: “that I may know how to sustain with a word to him who is weary” (verse 4). Israel was weary from their captivity and slavery to Babylon. The nations of the world were weary of slaving under sin and Satan. The world was going about in spiritual darkness.
What is the will of the Sovereign Lord for the Servant? Verse 5 tells us that there is something terribly difficult with the mission of the Servant. Because if an ordinary man is assigned this mission, he will surely be rebellious and turn back from fulfilling the Lord’s instructions. This is also why the Servant cannot be the nation Israel. At every turn, Israel has rebelled against the Lord—in the wilderness, during the settling of the Promised Land, and during the time of the judges and kings. Time and again, Israelites turned their back on God, and he would call them to repent and return.
Nor can this Servant be one of the prophets. Moses wanted to flee from God’s commission. Jonah turned his back on God and fled from his mission. Jeremiah reacted against the things the Lord wanted him to do (Jer 20:9, 14). Even Elijah wanted God to end his life because he was weary of working for God.
What part of his mission would make the Servant rebel and turn his back from the Lord is he was a mere sinful creature?
Through Suffering and Shame
Verse 6 tells us, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.”
Now the Servant reveals why his mission demands endurance and perfect obedience. There would be physical, and worse, emotional suffering. He who would give hope to those who are bruised and broken in heart (Isa 42:3), who would be patient in his difficult labors (Isa 49:4), and who would comfort those who are weary (verse 4)–would offer his back willingly to those who would beat and flog him.
He would turn his face to those who would pull out his beard. In the Old Testament, men wore beards, as Aaron did (Psa 133:2), and one of the forms of torture in the Ancient Near East was to pull the beard out. Obviously, even some of the skin from the chin and cheeks would also be pulled out, resulting in extreme pain. This was also done to shame and humiliate an offender or an enemy, such as when the Ammonites humiliated David’s emissaries, “So Hanun took David’s servants and shaved off half the beard of each” (2 Sam 10:4).
The Servant would not shrink back from the prospect of this physical torture and disgrace, even offering his face to spitting by his enemies. How would he able to endure such pain and humiliation? In verse 7, he is confident of the Sovereign Lord’s help. Because of the Lord’s help and assurance, the Servant does not see his pain and humiliation in the same way as mere mortals see them. Shame and disgrace are not enough to make him turn away from his mission. Physical torture can be endured as God’s will.
Therefore, the Servant says, “I have set my face like a flint.” What does this mean? Flint or flintstone is a very hard rock which produces sparks with steel. In the ancient days, people formed tools and weapons with them, such as axes, knives and arrowheads. Thus, when the Servant sets his face like a flint, it means he is resolutely determined to accomplish the great mission that the Sovereign Lord has assigned him. He steeled his face to meet all the physical and emotional sufferings he would encounter in his life.
In Ezekiel 3:8,9, the Lord used the hardness of flint to assure the prophet that he would help him preach to a rebellious Israel, “Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces … Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead.” The Servant has one goal fixed in his mind and he has fixed his face like a flint on this goal: to bring justice and salvation to the nations. Instead of hiding his face and turning his back away and his cheeks from his enemies, he turned to face them squarely with the firmest determination, as one who sets his face like a flint.
Even with God’s help, mere mortals like us are not able to do what the Lord assigned him to do. But the Servant could endure all of these sufferings and shame because the Sovereign Lord helps him and promised to vindicate him before his enemies. Why would God vindicate him? Because he was willing to suffer all these things, not for his own evil deeds, but for those to whom he would bring justice and salvation.
Because He Would Be Vindicated
To prove that he will be vindicated, the Servant is now brought to the Sovereign Lord’s divine court of justice. The Lord sends a call to everyone to come to the court and present an allegation against the Servant. The adversary comes and presents his accusation and his witnesses against the Servant. Now the judge has a verdict.
Not guilty! All the evidence presented against him are lies, because all the witnesses are liars. No one could contend and conduct a lawsuit against the Servant. Because his enemy is a liar and a sinner, he is not able to come near and stand with the Lord’s Servant in court. No case against him will stand. All the accusers will be found to be giving false witness.
The same expression is used by Job when he challenged anyone to present a case of wrongdoing against him as the cause of his sufferings, “Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be in the right. Who is there who will contend with me?” (Job 13:18) Like Job, the Servant knows that he has done nothing wrong to be condemned.
Therefore, the Servant is confident that the Sovereign Lord, the Judge of the Universe, is near him and would vindicate him. He knows that God hates the one “who justifies the wicked” and the one “who condemns the righteous” (Prov 17:15). God is a just God and demands that all human judges and kings “give justice” to the needy, the weak, and the oppressed (Psa 82:1-3). God requires human judges to dispense justice, “acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut 25:1).
Because he is just and righteous, the Sovereign Lord will not condemn him because he has done nothing wrong. He has learned from God and declared everything that God had taught him. Then he perfectly obeyed God. And he persevered through all the sufferings and shame inflicted upon him by his enemies. What is his crime? Where is his guilt?
The Servant who is guiltless will be acquitted. But what about those lying enemies and witnesses? He should not sorrow over his sufferings and shame and his enemies’ prosperity, because in the end they will get their just desserts. Like a garment, they will all wear out. Many people today buy new clothes and shoes, but only use them a few times and do not wear them out. The clothes end up in the closet or garage. But even when they are stored in the closet, they wear out over the years. Worse, they could be eaten by moths or mice or be infested by mildew.
This is the lot of the enemies of the Servant. Unlike the Servant who is the Servant of the Lord for eternity, God’s enemies will wear out, become utterly useless, and condemned in the divine court. Their words and deeds will be condemned. But not so with the Servant’s words and deeds—they will last for eternity, “The grass withers, the flower fades, the word of our God shall stand forever” (Isa 40:8).
Psalm 1 describes the great contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The Servant is like the righteous man who meditates on God’s Word day and night, whose leaves do not wither, and whose every work prospers. The wicked are not so. They are “like chaff that the wind drives away,” and are gone in a moment. Just as the false witnesses against the Servant will not be able to stand in God’s divine court, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment.” God knows the righteous way of the Servant, but the way of his enemies will perish.
“He Set His Face to Go to Jerusalem”
We remember this day when the Servant of the Sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ, entered the gates of Jerusalem riding a lowly donkey on his way to his final suffering and shame on the cross and in the tomb. Morning by morning, he had been taught by God and meditated on God’s Word. In his humanity, he had learned from God through obedience. And now, he is on his final week of his obedient journey.
His ear was open to God’s will, saying, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book” (Heb 10:7), and “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). And because of his learning, he was fully equipped to give comfort and rest to the weary, calling his people, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
When he knew that the time of his suffering all the way to the cross had come, he told his disciples that the time had come for the Son of Man to suffer at the hands of the Jews. He then resolutely determined to go on his final journey to Jerusalem: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face [like a flint] to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
The Jews would welcome him at first because they wanted him to be their earthly king, but not as One who would save them from sin. Knowing that the people were mistaken, the Servant refused to be their earthly king. Then they would beat him, flog him, slap him, spit on him, mock him, and laugh at him, “Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him” (Matt 26:67). “And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him” (Mark 15:19-20).
At his trial, the Jews called witnesses to the stand, but all their accusations against him were baseless and lies. Pilate knew that Jesus was a “righteous man,” because his wife told him. So instead of condemning him, Pilate declared, “I find no guilt in him,” and washed his hands as a gesture of his innocence (Matt 27:19, 22-24; John 18:38). After Christ died, even the centurion who saw everything, exclaimed, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47).
They would torture the Servant until he died his cruel death on the cross. But these are the same people to whom he would later give rest and comfort from the weariness of sin. This is because it was for sinners like them that the Servant would willing to be disgraced and scourged.
But he would offer his back for flogging, his face for spitting, slapping and beating, and his perfect character for mocking because he knew that God would vindicate him by raising him from the grave on the third day by the Spirit (1 Tim 3:16).
Because God is holy and just, he must condemn us who are sinners. But why did the Sovereign Lord condemn the righteous Servant instead, sending him to an accursed death on the tree? Paul answers, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
The One who was truly innocent and righteous was condemned, and we who are truly guilty are acquitted and vindicated. Isn’t this unrighteous for God to do? Absolutely not! Because God has accounted our sin to the Servant, he poured out his wrath on him because of our sin, not his. And he has accounted the Servant’s perfect obedience to us, so that all the blessings of salvation from sin and death are given to us on his account. This is why all these blessings—election, redemption, inheritance—are given always “in Christ” (Eph 1:3-14).
We are the rebels, not him. We are the disobedient, not him. We are the ones who sent him to shame and suffering and death, not because he was sinful, but because we are sinful.
So how are you to show your thankfulness for this redemption? By learning from the Servant, meditating on his words day and night. By obeying his commands, because he is your chief Teacher and Prophet who speaks words of eternal life (John 6:63, 68). And then by declaring to others what you have learned from him. This is how you truly become his disciples.
Becoming a disciple of Christ is not easy in this world of sin and ungodliness. Many will mock you. Around the world, many Christians are persecuted and even martyred. But be assured that like the Servant, all accusations against you will be falsehood and baseless and you will be vindicated. Because your Servant assures you:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … [Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:33-36, 39)