October 18 – Isaiah 53:1-12
Last week we saw another passage, Isaiah 61:1-4, in which God’s Chosen Servant had something to say, but this week our passage has something to say about the Servant. In particular Isaiah 53 adds an important dimension to what this Servant will do on earth. You’d expect the Chosen One to be like Neo in the Matrix, pummeling all the bad guys into submission—and looking so cool while doing it—or like Luke Skywalker, bringing balance back to the cosmos. Surprisingly, though it might even disturb our modern sentiments, one of Jesus’ primary tasks on earth was to suffer. Read through this chapter and you’ll see layer after layer of suffering: he was despised by men, familiar with sorrow, crushed, pierced, and chastised, cut off from the living, innocent but punished, anointed but cursed. And observe all of the parallels between this passage and Jesus’ crucifixion: he was both oppressed and had legal judgment declared against him(Jhn 19:12-16), he was beaten (Jhn 19:1), “esteemed…smitten by God” (Luk 23:35), pierced (Jhn 19:18,34), and buried in a rich man’s grave (Jhn 19:38). But note that Jesus’ suffering wasn’t contained to his death; prior to the crucifixion Jesus was already despised and rejected (Luk 4:29), acquainted with grief (Jhn 11:35). So in his death Jesus suffered, but also in his life. This points out two really important takeaways from this passage for us.
First, Jesus suffered death in order to redeem us, and this was the crucial step in God’s plan for salvation. Check out verses 10-12 in particular; to paraphrase, God crushed Jesus and put him to grief to bear our sin, and by his death for our guilt we can be counted as righteous before God. This and other passages in the Bible (Exo 12, Lev 16, Mrk 10:45, Jhn 3:36, Rom 3:21-26, Gal 3:10-14, etc.) build on this idea, which is captured by the technical term penal substitution (penal as in penalty). In this substitution Jesus became the Passover lamb, whose blood protected Israel from losing their firstborn (Exo 12); he became the goat sacrificed on the day of atonement (Lev 16). But unlike those animal sacrifices, which always had to be redone the next year, Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred once and for all (Heb 10:10). By his life of total obedience to God’s word Jesus was the perfect representative, totally undeserving of the penalty of death that sin incurs (Rom 6:23). Through his death our sin and his righteousness might be exchanged, our sin leading to his death, his righteousness giving us spiritual life and right standing before God.
The blood of the cross might make us squeamish; not a few Biblical scholars have backtracked from this idea of penal substitution because it seems far too brutal for a God who is love (1 Jhn 4:16). But taking the whole Bible in context we know from God’s own mouth the just penalty for sin is death. If we do not think God is justified in killing someone for their sin, it’s likely because our view of sin is different (read: lower) than his. In the cross of Christ we see that God is ultimately just, that no sin goes unpunished. So in one sense Jesus suffered unjustly (Act 2:23, 1 Pet 3:18), but in another he was punished justly, in that he received the just penalty for sin. But in this exchange we also see that God is merciful, in that he was willing to take that punishment upon himself and incur his own wrath that we might be saved from it. And Isaiah, having written this some 700 years before Jesus’ death, shows us that this was God’s plan all along. Looking at the brutality Jesus suffered in our place should help us see just how serious sin is and help us respond in thanksgiving, that God would go to such great lengths to save us.
The second important takeaway is in Jesus’ suffering life. Why was Jesus rejected by men, esteemed smitten by God and afflicted? In some sense this was a fulfillment of Christ’ perfect obedience to God. Hebrews 4:15-16 tells us Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tempted in every way we have been and yet remaining without sin. So Christ endured everything mankind can endure and yet by remaining sinless he came to the cross a perfect sacrifice. But in another sense Christ sympathized with us in his suffering, much like Isaiah voices it in our passage this week, “Surely he has borne our grief.”(Isa 53:4) I think that verse means more than just “Christ bore the grief of our sin on the cross.” Looking at his life of suffering, itinerant ministry, rejection, political pressure, under frequent threat of death or harm, we see that Christ experienced the travails of being human. I think this too was part of God’s ministry to us through Jesus, that he came not just to die for us, but to be with us, to even experience what it means to be us. This too should help us respond in thanksgiving, knowing that we don’t have some religious leader who is separate and far off from us, but one who physically knows our suffering and weakness, and thus, as Hebrews encourages us, we can approach his throne of mercy with confidence.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Isaiah 53:1-12 for us?/p>
• What stands out to you from this passage?/p>
• What can this passage tell us about Jesus’ life and death on earth?/p>
• What can this tell us about God’s plan for salvation?/p>
• What’s similar and what’s different between Jesus’ suffering and our own suffering?/p>
• Look at verse 5. According to this passage, Jesus bore your sins and suffered for it. How does that impact the way you relate to him?/p>
• How can this passage help us understand justice and injustice?/p>