When the Servant is “lifted up from the earth” at his crucifixion, he is at the same time exalted as he “ draw[s] all people to [him]self,” because, as he exclaimed on the cross, “It is finished!”
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:10-12 (texts); Philippians 2:1-11
|April 24, 2011 • Easter Sunday||Download PDF sermon|
Our culture idolizes so-called “beautiful people”—celebrities, athletes and politicians. These people set the trends in fashion, entertainment, sports, and worse, sexual immorality. Beauty, strength, and power are assets that most people try their best—even emptying their wallets in the process—to imitate.
But there is nothing new under the sun. Already during the time of Noah, there were “giants on the earth … mighty men of renown” (Gen 6:4). It seems that they were the ones who spread great wickedness on the earth, prompting God to destroy all mankind with a great flood.
Who wouldn’t want to be beautiful, strong and wealthy? Those who are unattractive, weak, and poor are lowly regarded, ignored, and even treated with contempt. In the late 19th century, an Englishman named Joseph Merrick, began to develop severe abnormalities, starting with the enlargement of his lips, and then a bony lump on his forehead. Later, one of his arms and both feet became enlarged, and his skin began to get thick and lumpy. He became disabled for the rest of his life. Because of his disfigurement, Merrick was abandoned by his parents, and was made as a circus spectacle to be laughed at, insulted and abused. The movie about his life, The Elephant Man, was difficult to watch because of the extreme disfigurement. He would easily fit the description of the Servant of the Lord in our text, a man whom others could not even look at.
This is why the world was astonished and speechless at the Servant of the Lord. When they saw him, his appearance was repulsive, because he was disfigured and his form was beyond human recognition. He was disfigured because he was “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted … wounded for our transgressions … crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:4-5). But when he was later highly exalted, the world was dumbfounded. How can a man so reviled and beaten be “high and lifted up”? This is beyond human comprehension, against human standards.
Our text is the last of the four Servant Songs of Isaiah, a very well-known passage often quoted during the time of Good Friday. But this passage does not only prophesy the sufferings of Christ; it also talks about his victory and vindication. The first three Servant Songs progressively revealed the mission of the Servant of the Lord. In the first, he brings justice to the nations, and in the second, he is the salvation of Israel and the nations. The second Song reveals for the first time that he would accomplish his mission with many difficulties, which would make anyone “grow faint or be discouraged” (Isa 42:3). In the third 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” (Isa 49:6).
In this fourth Song, he shall accomplish his mission of bringing justice and salvation to the nations by being despised, rejected, stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. How can this be? This is because “he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (verse 12). He would remove the guilt of many by the sacrifice of himself offered to God. Note the use of different pronouns for three different subjects: “I” is the Lord, “he” is the Servant, and “we,” “us,” and “our” are the Servant’s disciples: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (verse 6). We are the ones whose sins the Servant would bear in his sufferings.
In Spite of a Disfigured Appearance
Unlike so many of the world’s attractive, strong and powerful entertainment and sports people, the Servant’s “appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (verse 14). Like the Elephant Man, he hardly appears to be human, a grotesque figure, “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him … despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces” (verses 2-3).
Are these words to be taken just literally and physically? We know from all four Servant Songs that his sufferings involved physical pain, mental agony, and spiritual temptations. In writing about his own sufferings, King David also penned the sufferings of the Servant in similar terms:
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (Psa 22:6-8).
In fact, Matthew 27 uses Psalm 22 to point out that the sufferings of Christ during his last hours were prophesied in the Old Testament: Jesus crying out to God (Psa 22:1; Matt 27:46); soldiers dividing his garments (Psa 22:18; Matt 27: 35); passersby wagging their heads (Psa 22:7; Matt 27:39); and the chief priests and other people mocking him by saying that God would deliver him from the cross (Psa 22:8; Matt 27:43).
Suffering, weakness, humility, and unattractiveness are not the world’s desires. These are despised, especially by this generation. Self-esteem, health and wealth, and happiness are the false gospels of many churches. Self-help books fill up bookstore shelves. A popular televangelist even says that sin is lack of self-esteem. Songs affirming the ego such as this fill the air:
I am beautiful no matter what they say
Words can’t bring me down
I am beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can’t bring me down.
But the Servant accomplished his whole mission by being humiliated, rejected, mocked, spat on, beaten, and executed in the same manner that all accursed criminals are killed. Nothing beautiful and powerful can be found in his sufferings and death. His stuff—self-sacrifice for the sins of others—is a thing that human beings normally consider as worthless and a waste.
Israel did not realize that God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the nations would be the work of a Suffering Servant. They did not know that wretched sinners like them would have no part in God’s plan, because all humankind are incapable and unwilling to come to God on their own. Most Christians today think in the same way—they are saved on account of their own decision.
But God knows the hopeless and helpless condition of the human heart. He has to find a solution to the problem of how he would execute justice and satisfy his holiness without destroying his whole creation. And that solution is by offering his only begotten Son to suffer and die for man’s sin. No one else can, because no one else is qualified as a spotless, unblemished Lamb of God. This is why Peter, in quoting the last Servant Song, says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24).
He Shall Prolong His Days
But the astonishment of those who see him will be compounded by what happens after the Servant is disfigured in his suffering and death.
The song opens with a presentation of the Servant by the Lord: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely.” The word used for “wisely” also means “accomplish” or “prosper,” so he shall succeed in his work by acting wisely. From where does his wisdom come? It comes from the Lord who upholds him and puts his Spirit on him (Isa 42:1). True wisdom can only come from God’s Spirit.
The next line is what astonishes others, “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” This phrase is always reserved for God, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa 6:1; cf 33:10; 57:15). The apostle John brings this vision up front in explaining why the Jews did not believe in Jesus even after he did many miraculous signs. Isaiah says the Jews would be blinded and hardened by God and would not be healed. 1 So John concluded, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:38-41).
John also applies the language of the Servant being “lifted up” not only to Christ being exalted in his resurrection and ascension, but also in his being literally “lifted up” on the cross. Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). And when the Servant is “lifted up from the earth” at his crucifixion, he is at the same time exalted as he “ draw[s] all people to myself” (John 12:32), because, as he exclaimed on the cross, “It is finished!” Mission accomplished!
But how could this despised, rejected, and disfigured man be high, lifted up, and exalted, attributes ascribed only to the Lord? Unthinkable! Blasphemous! the Jews would charge. But Paul has this Servant Song in mind when he wrote in Philippians 2:5-11 about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ, “[he] made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant … And 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.” In this disfigured Servant, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9; cf 1:19). Humiliation leading to exaltation, what an improbable idea!
This is why some scholars translate “sprinkle the nations” as “startle the nations.” In an ongoing debate, the traditional translation “sprinkle” uses an Old Testament purification rite of sprinkling blood on something that is unclean or sinful (Exod 29:21; Lev 14:16-19). The Servant then, will “sprinkle the nations” to make them clean. Hebrews 9:13-14 compares the superiority of the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood on sinners for the purification of their conscience over the Old Testament sprinkling of the blood of animals on defiled persons.
On the other hand, the Septuagint translation uses “cause to wonder” or “startle” because of two reasons: (1) It fits the context of verses 14 and 15 of nations being astonished at the Servant’s work; and (2) The syntax of the Hebrew would necessitate a translation that says that the Servant shall sprinkle the nations onto something else. Both translations are acceptable and would fit the theme of this text: the Suffering Servant would be startle the nations in being exalted and by sprinkling them clean of their sins.
This turn of events in the life of the Servant would not only astonish, but also shut the mouths of kings (verse 15). They would be rendered speechless because they will see their lowliness and smallness before the high and exalted King. Kings and princes “shall prostrate themselves” at the foot of the One who was “deeply despised and abhorred” (Isa 49:7).
The nations had never heard of such a man until the gospel of Christ was proclaimed throughout the nations. Now, they see his story unfold before their own eyes through all the apostles and prophets first, then through ministers. Paul says in Romans 15:20-21 that he preached the gospel in places where Christ was not yet known, because he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah in verse 15, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
The Lord was willing to crush him and to put him to grief, and the Servant as well was willing to offer himself as a sacrifice for the guilt of many people (verse 10). Because of his obedience, three things will happen to him.
First, “he shall see his offspring.” But this seems to contradict verse 8, where the Servant is “cut off out of the land of the living … And they made his grave with the wicked.” He died without any children, and his body not allowed to be buried with respected people. How then shall he “see his offspring”?
His offspring of course are the children of the Seed promised by God to the woman in the Garden of Eden, the One who will crush the serpent’s head. His offspring are also those children promised to Abraham, innumerable as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore, for all who “are Christ’s … are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29). All those who are united to Christ by faith are children of God, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17).
Second, “he shall prolong his days.” If the Lord promised him a long life, then is 33 years considered a long life? The average lifespan, according Psalm 90, is about 70-80 years, and God promised long life to Jews who were obedient to his Law. If Christ died at 33, without any descendants, then there is no other explanation of how he would “prolong” his days except his resurrection from the dead. This is probably why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:4 that Christ “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
His resurrection from the dead is God’s confirmation that his sin offering was a pleasing aroma, satisfying his just and holy nature. Although he is the eternal Son of God, at his resurrection, Christ was revealed as the Son of God to “all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”
You who are in Christ “are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom 1:4, 6, 7). You share in his resurrection, not only after death (Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:21-22), but even now, you have new life in Christ (Rom 6:5). You are justified before God by grace through faith in Christ, because of his resurrection (Rom 4:25). These then are the benefits of Christ’s resurrection that the Lord bestows on his children (Heidelberg Catechism 45). Without his resurrection, we are of all people, pitiful, we have no redemption from sin, and therefore, hopeless (1 Cor 15:17-19).
Third, “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Repeating the idea in verse 13, the Servant shall execute the Lord’s will and plan to save his people from sin. In willingly being crushed by God in offering himself as a sacrifice, he shall accomplish his mission. By being willing to crush his own Servant, God will accomplish his purpose.
This is why Jesus always declared his mission to do the will of his Father in heaven, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34); “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Thus, he accomplished all righteousness required by the Law, and fulfilled everything that was written in the Prophets (Matt 5:17). By his perfect obedience and righteousness, he justified us freely by grace (Rom 5:12-21).
Therefore, the work that he accomplished has long-lasting effects: the Servant is the eternal Son of God who cleanses the nations of sin and saves them from death and the wrath of God.
He Shall Sprinkle Many Nations
In the beginning of this Song, the Lord prophesied that the Servant “shall sprinkle many nations” and “kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” What he was, a disfigured, rejected human being, and what he would become, high, lifted up, and exalted, will astonish the whole world (verses 13-15).
Because he shall obtain forgiveness for many with his offering, arise from the grave and prolong his days, and accomplish God’s will, “he shall see and be satisfied” (verse 11). Although he grieved and suffered in accomplishing his mission, the final outcome is satisfaction and joy. His satisfaction will be like that of a worker finishing a building, an artist admiring his painting, or a businessman reaping the benefits of good planning and execution. It is like that of God proclaiming after completing his six-day work of creation, “It was very good!”
What accomplishment would give him satisfaction? He will reap two great benefits. First, after his sacrificial offering and resurrection, the Servant will “sprinkle many nations.” When God gathers his people, he promises, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezek 36:25). Many will be cleansed and purified of their sin when he bore their sins in the cross.
This is why sprinkling is a sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins in baptism. Christ saved us “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit 3:5-6).“With our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water,” we are able to draw near to God (Heb 10:22).
As well, the Servant was “acquainted with grief,” that is, he had intimate knowledge of suffering and sorrow (verse 3). By this knowledge of grief leading to his accursed death on the cross, many will be accounted righteous (verse 11). Jesus himself knew that he would have to be “numbered with the transgressors” to accomplish God’s purpose (Luke 22:37). He would be identified, not only with the two thieves crucified with him, but also with all the unrighteous he would wash clean.
How will they be counted righteous? His righteousness, which he attained through this obedience all the way to the cross, will be given to them, and they will be justified through faith. This is why Paul says that Jesus’s “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” who will repent and believe in “Jesus Christ the righteous” (Rom 5:18; 1 John 2:1).
Second, he will be given “a portion with the many … the spoil with the strong.” Like a conqueror sharing his victory with his army, he will divide his great plunder of spoils among his men. Christ is plundering Satan’s kingdom, releasing the devil’s captives and taking them to the Kingdom of God, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col 2:15). Not one of his chosen people will be lost, and they will be raised on the last day (John 6:39). These chosen ones are the spoils of his victory over sin and death.
Beloved friends in Christ, rejoice this day! Every first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, we assemble together to remember and give thanks to God for the resurrection of our Servant, Savior, and Mediator. It is not just this Sunday we celebrate his resurrection, but every Lord’s Day.
Why do we celebrate his resurrection? Because, if he wasn’t resurrected, it would mean that God did not accept his once-for-all bloody sacrifice on the cross for all our sins. We would still be lost in sin and will suffer God’s wrath and judgment. Your faith will be useless. All that we do today and every Lord’s Day would be meaningless. Your life as a Christian would not be acceptable to God. But now, he is sitting at the right hand of his Father in heaven, interceding for you, and waiting for that great day of his return to raise you and all his people from the grave.
Remember also that because Christ’s sacrifice is once-for-all, he has done everything for your salvation and forgiveness. There is nothing else to add to the work he has accomplished on the cross. If you think you can add to his work by doing good works to be saved, you are no different from all those who make pilgrimages, say repetitive prayers, flog themselves, and even crucify themselves every Good Friday to appease God and go to heaven. Christ has accomplished all, and the only command to you is, “Repent and believe!” and you shall be saved.
The high and lifted up Servant also calls you to humility, to be as servants to one another, looking to the interests of your brethren, and not only to your own interests. Just as he presented his own sacrifice on the cross as a pleasing aroma to God, Christ also calls you to present your whole life as a living sacrifice, “good and acceptable and perfect” before God.
Also preached at Pasig Covenant Reformed Church on April 24, 2011
- Many health-and-wealth, and evangelical, churches use verse 5 of Isaiah 53 as proof-text for their “healing” doctrine, teaching that God promises Christians physical healing in the words, “with his wounds we are healed.” They also cite Matthew 8:17, where, after Jesus healed many sick and demon-possessed people, it says, quoting Isaiah 53:4“This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’”
For example, the website of Victory Christian Fellowship in the Philippines has this to say about Isaiah 53:5:
The wounds that Jesus carried on His body from the crown of thorns upon His head, the nails on His hands and feet, and the sword of the Roman soldier that pierced His side—all of these were meant for our healing and restoration. With the physical pain He went through, Jesus paved a way for us to claim the promise of healing (Matthew 8:14-17; 1Peter 2:24; emphasis added).
This teaching completely misses the point of Isaiah 53:5 and Matthew 8:17. The whole context of Isaiah 53 is the atoning work done by Christ to save his people from sin, so “healing” here is about spiritual healing. Just a cursory look at verse 5 will yield this conclusion:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Verse 5 talks about the Servant of the Lord being pierced, crushed and chastised for our sins, for our peaceable reconciliation with God, and these things are our “healing.”
When Jesus healed many during his earthly ministry, it was to demonstrate his divine power and to show that forgiveness of sins involves both physical and spiritual healing. He also showed that he has the divine prerogative to forgive sins. But although his atoning work is for both body and soul, he is not telling us in Matthew 8:17 that all believers will be healed from all diseases, at least, not in this age, not yet. No one can “claim the promise of healing,” and if a Christian is not healed, no one can accuse him that he has little faith. Otherwise, we are saying that the Apostle Paul himself had little faith; but not only Paul, but all the other apostles, countless Christians who were persecuted or died as martyrs, and others who died of sickness, including prosperity gospel preachers themselves, such as Kenneth Hagin, who died of cancer. ⇧