TRA Wordtalks

"Sunday, 31st May, 1998 - Jesus: the Suffering Servant."

15/98 31.5.98 Scripture:Isaiah 53:1-12

MANY new scholarly works on the life of Jesus, deny any divine purpose behind His death upon the cross. As we have seen in previous addresses, Jesus is not seen by them as Son of Man or the Atoning Sacrifice. Neither is He seen in one of the oldest and most used phrases, the Suffering Servant. I doubt if anyone could listen to Handel's "Messiah" and not be moved by the poignant singing of "He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief." The picture of Isaiah's Suffering Servant has been vivid in the minds of believers for 2000 years.

Some modern writers want to end that idea. One is Robert Eisenman in "James, The Brother of Jesus". He uses the Dead Sea Scrolls to re-invent James the brother of Jesus, as more notable than Jesus. Another revisionist is Andrew Wilson. This British novelist rejects the scriptures and seeks to discover a historical figure, whom he calls "the real Jesus" ("Jesus" Norton 1992). But as he starts by rejecting the Biblical views about Jesus, he can only give a shallow and unsubstantiated imagined picture of Him. Wilson is convinced that Paul must have seen Jesus, but not the risen Lord appearing to Paul on Damascus Road twenty years later. He imagines Paul as a student in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, who was in the Garden of Gethsemane. Paul was actually the man Malchus, whom Peter slashed with the sword cutting off his ear! With similar inventiveness he says Jesus told the disciples to find an Upper Room for the Last Supper by following a man with a pitcher of water, the astrological symbol of Aquarius. This was "the dawning of the age of Aquarius" we sang about in the 1960's!

Among academics the works of Eisenman and Wilson are regarded with contempt. The Catholic scholar from Durham, Bernard Robinson, dismisses Wilson and calls Eisenman a "crank". He claims these writers reject all scholarship and instead distort scripture. "What we have here is people who can't even read Hebrew taking one strand out of a translation, out of context and building a theory around it. So Jesus is a revolutionary, a mystic, a cynic or whatever description might cause a scandal, when the truth is a bit of all of them."

A scholar revisionist from "The Jesus Seminar", Fr John Dominic Crossan, in a brief re-telling of his massive "The Historical Jesus" called "Who Killed Jesus" (Harper 1995) responds to other scholarly works by totally discounting the historical narratives and re-creating them from prophecies and his own imagination. He believes Jesus was seized and executed as a result of his aggressiveness in the Temple. He thinks the betrayal by Judas and the flight of his followers are probably historical, but there was no trial before Pilate or Herod and none of Jesus' followers witnessed His death. His body was most likely eaten by the dogs and crows.

The story of the trial was derived from Psalm 2; the details of Jesus' abuse from prophecies in Isaiah; the idea of burial by enemies from Deuteronomy; and the resurrection from wishful thinking. He claims that Pilate's desire to be innocent of this man's blood was part of an anti-Jewish sentiment stressing Jewish guilt and Roman innocence. Crossan's work seems to be the origin of Dr John Squire's newspaper article "Politics Killed Jesus" (S.H.7.3.96)

Finally, Bishop John Shelby Spong has written three books on "a bishop's search for the origins of Christianity." Spong calls himself an "international religious folk hero", a radical and provocative thinker. He is supported by those who despise the church, who reject the Bible as having historical worth and who grasp for easy answers on theological issues.

Spong is not regarded as a scholar or someone who has provided any significant historical or theological insights and some of his conclusions are highly imaginative. He believes Mary was raped, went to Joseph for protection, and had an illegitimate son Jesus. As an adult Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and he provided the wine at his own wedding in Cana. He does not accept the events of Easter as actual occurrences witnessed by so many people, but the creation of Peter and others. So he discredits historical events and replaces them with his own imaginative version of what happened.

Spong does not accept the resurrection of Jesus Christ as an historical event in the lives of early Christians. He believes it was made up to explain several images from Jewish belief. The three powerful Old Testament images he mentions are the Son of Man, the Atoning Sacrifice and the Suffering Servant. I have taken the same scriptural passages for our own consideration. We now turn to the passages which describe Jesus as the Suffering Servant. The references are four Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). One easy-to-read understanding is found in William Barclay "Jesus As They Saw Him" (SCM 1962 p160-186) and a more scholarly approach is John L McKenzie, "Second Isaiah" (Anchor 1968).

The fourth song foretells the birth, early life, death, resurrection and future glory of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. I will speak only on the last section which deals with the death and resurrection of Christ. Second, Isaiah was a prophet who wrote in 540BC. Because of the references to historical persons like Cyrus who conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled Jewish slaves to return to their homeland, we can date him accurately.

In the last Servant Song he speaks of a composite picture of God's great Messiah who would come, not as a powerful political leader, but as a servant who would suffer because of the sins of people. This was exactly the opposite to what the Jews were anticipating. He pictures what would happen to this Suffering Servant and details His death. Looking at the historical events that happened to Jesus, we see how they fulfilled this prophecy.

The rejection of Jesus by the Jews and His crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, are summed up "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not." His vicarious suffering is movingly outlined: "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." Vicarious means "in place of another." It goes back to the Latin word "vicis", which means "a substitute." This is the central meaning of the death of Jesus. Christians believe, as the old hymn puts it, "it was for us, He hung and suffered there."

Prof Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, once said that the Greek word hyper ("on behalf of") is the most important word in the entire Bible. The people who first heard him say that were amazed. But he meant "on behalf of" is the central idea in the gospel. The Bible teaches that Jesus died "on behalf of" the ungodly. He died in their place. Salvation depends upon the fact He did. None of us can die to achieve our own salvation. Outside of Christ, when we die, all we would collect is the wages of our sin. But Jesus, who did not sin, could die in our place and did. By His death we are saved. By His stripes we are healed.

In this one verse the vicarious or substitutionary atonement of the Messiah is stated four times. "He was pierced for our transgressions," that is, he was wounded not for His sins but for ours. "He was crushed for our iniquities." "The punishment that brought us peace was upon him." "By his wounds we are healed." We find the same thing in v4: "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows." "The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." "For the transgression of my people he was stricken." "The LORD makes his life a guilt offering." v12: "He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors."

v5: "By his wounds we are healed." How can you say it more simply? We are not well. Jesus suffered so we could be healed. It is by His suffering on our behalf that salvation comes to us. The Bible says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved-you and your household" (Acts 16:31). It is as simple as that. You do not have to understand a great deal, only that Jesus is the Saviour and trust Him.

His suffering on the Cross was deep and silent. He made no complaint, no cry of anger against His persecutors nor condemnation of the system. We each have been led astray but He suffered for us all without protest. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."

That is precisely the way Peter expresses it when saying to Christians living in an unjust world (1 Pet 2:20), "If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly."

"By oppression and judgment, He was taken away." By oppressive judgment He was taken away: here is the injustice of Christ's trial. It was judicial murder prophesied here in Isaiah. In v9 "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death." "Rich" is in the singular. Jesus died with the wicked on the cross between thieves but was buried in a rich man's tomb. How could Isaiah have known that? What possible reason is there to throw this particular detail in? There is none whatever, except that the Holy Spirit, who directed Isaiah in the writing of this prophecy wanted us to know.

v10: "Yet it was the LORD'S will to crush him." How can that be? God always does right. So how can it be that it was God's will to crush Him? The answer lies in the word "Yet". Isaiah knows that Jesus was innocent, yet He would die for us. Jesus was innocent, yet He died in our place. It was God's will to take the innocent one and allow Him to suffer in our place, so that by His grace we might go free.

In the last verses we see that Jesus accomplished everything. vl0: "He will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand." He will see His offspring, His spiritual children. Those for whom He died will be saved. "He will prolong His days." Jesus will be raised and live forever. "And the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand." The will of the Lord is fulfilled everytime people look at the cross and see Jesus dying for their sin, who look at the tomb and see their guilt buried, and look at the risen Lord and see the King of glory!

"After the suffering of his soul, He will see the light of life and be satisfied; by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great, and He will divide the spoils with the strong, because He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors". How wonderfully true! The prophecies were fulfilled! How weak and unsatisfying are the modern imaginings of novelists and scholars by comparison! Nothing is more wonderful than the Bible's account of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! What is required is that we respond in faith to Him.

Gordon Moyes

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