The sacrificial servant - Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the reasons I feel privileged to be alive at the beginning of the 21st Century is because of the smallness of the world. I know the geographical limitations of our planet remain constant but, over the last few decades, new technology has transformed the way we live. The circumference of the equator may be a staggering 24,902 miles but, as a result of modern travel and modern communications, we now talk about out planet as a global village. The world is becoming smaller. Mobility is a feature of our time. At the touch of a button we can speak to friends who are thousands of miles away and within hours we can meet them face to face if the need arises. And even on our doorstep, here in this very city, we increasingly have the opportunity to meet people from cultures very different from our own. And I don’t mean people from Bridlington! I mean people from around the world. Unfortunately, the British amongst us suffer from a major disadvantage. Usually, we have no idea how to communicate with people who speak a different language. And no doubt if you have tried this, you will have discovered the standard British technique of speaking slowly and loudly doesn’t actually work. So what are we to do? Well, my constant fear is that in the pressure of the moment I will end up insulting the person’s mother instead of welcoming my new international acquaintance with a familiar greeting. So, for example, instead of saying “Hello, it’s great to meet you and hear about your mother” in their native language, I say something like, “Hello, it’s great to meet you and hear how your mother looks like a badly deformed badger.” That would not be a good start to a friendship, would it? So here is my advice for those of us who want to communicate effectively in the global village. Choose your language and then start by learning the most important phrase everyone needs to know when communicating in a foreign dialect. Do you know what it is? It’s very simple. You only need to learn four words: My friend will pay. It’s the most important phrase we can learn in a foreign language.
And as we’ll discover tonight it’s also the phrase, which reveals whether or not we are going to heaven. A number of years ago a famous Christian preacher called Billy Graham was being interviewed on Australian radio. At one point in the conversation the interviewer decided to ask Billy Graham about his future destiny. “Mr Graham, how confident are you that you are going to heaven?” There was no hesitation. Billy Graham responded, “I have absolutely no doubts. I am completely confident that I have a place waiting for me in heaven.” Now at this point the telephone switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. Caller after caller phoned in and expressed their amazement at the arrogance of a man who was so confident about his future. They were enraged. Quite simply, they were enraged that anyone could speak with certainly about their eternal destination. How could he know where he was going? Four words: My friend will pay. Or more accurately, Billy Graham believed then, as he does today, that his closest friend, Jesus Christ, had already died on a cross to pay for his sins. All of them: Past, present and future. And because Jesus Christ, the historical man who lived 2000 years ago, had already paid the full penalty for his wickedness, he knew that as a follower of Jesus his future was secure.
So what about us? Do we know for certain what will happen to us on the day of accountability? When you stand before your God and he judges your life, will he say, “Come in and live with me” or will he say, “Get away from me. Be gone from my presence. Never darken my door again”?
Countless books have been written about the identity of the person we read about in Isaiah chapter 53. But, according to Acts 8, the case is closed. Do you remember the Ethiopian eunuch’s confusion as he sat in his chariot? He was returning to Egypt from a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem and on his way home he decided to read a section from the book of Isaiah. In fact, he was reading the exact words I read to you tonight. “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
But as he read his Bible this religious pilgrim was left utterly confused. Do you remember his question to Philip? You can hear the desperation in his voice. “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” And how did Philip respond? He began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
And that’s what I want to do tonight. I want each of us to leave this building with a clear understanding of why the death of Jesus is good news. In fact, my prayer is that each one of us will leave this building with a clear understanding of why a person slaughtered like a lamb in an abattoir is actually the greatest news in the world. So if you’ve got your bibles open let me show you what these verses teach us about Jesus.
We begin with his mission. Have a look at 52:13. This is what God the Father says about Jesus: “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised up and lifted up and highly exalted.” Now at the very least this was simply a very comprehensive way of describing the future glory of the servant. God the Father is determined that we realise his servant Jesus is destined for great things. His Son will be no second-rate actor on the stage of history. And to make his point, God the Father links together phrase after phrase to draw our attention to the prime position he will give to Jesus. He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted to a place of great honour and adoration.
And yet as I look at these words I also find myself starring at an even more detailed prediction of what would happen to Jesus. Remember these words were written over 700 years before Jesus was born and yet listen to how accurately they speak about his future. He will be raised and lifted up and
highly exalted. It’s an amazing prediction! Over 700 years before he was even born we read about his resurrection (the truth that he was raised from the dead), his ascension (the truth that he returned to heaven) and his exaltation (the truth that he has been given the place of honour in the heavenly realms).
But why? Why does Jesus deserve all this attention? Well, it’s all because of his mission. Have a look at verses 14 and 15. “Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness — 15 so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.” Now you would never put this servant’s face on a postage stamp. The prediction from these verses is that something would happen to Jesus that would completely disfigure him, that would change his appearance beyond recognition. And if you have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ you will know exactly what I am talking about. The flogging before the crucifixion. It was a horrific form of torture. Leather whips with small pieces of metal or bone at the tips were used to tear apart the victim’s back. And this is exactly what happened to Jesus before he was led out to die. His appearance was marred beyond human likeness. So promise 1 from Isaiah 52: many people would be appalled at the sight of Jesus.
But did you notice the contrast in verses 14 and 15? Just as there were many who were appalled at him so he will sprinkle many nations. Now there is the mission of Jesus in a nutshell: He is the one who can sprinkle many nations. The picture of sprinkling is taken from the Jewish sacrificial system. In preparation for the arrival of Jesus, the Jewish people had been given a comprehensive system for dealing with the problem of human wickedness. They were being told that human sin could not be swept under the carpet. Rebellion against God was serious and if the people were not to be punished, a substitute had to stand in their place. Now for the Jews this involved various sacrifices where animals were killed instead of them. Frequently, the sins of an individual or even the whole people of God were symbolically transferred onto the animal by pressing down on its head. And then it was killed.
Now, afterwards, one of the Jewish priests would sprinkle its blood over various places. And he did this to symbolise that only the death of a substitute could deal with a person’s sin. Wonderfully, sins could be washed away, they could be dealt with, but only when blood was shed. The blood was a constant reminder that for sins to be removed a substitute had to die. Or to use the language of the New Testament, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
So what a tremendous responsibility is given to Jesus in these verses. His mission is off the Richter Scale in terms of importance. He is the one God the Father has chosen to sprinkle many nations, the priest whose job it is to deal with human wickedness. So whatever nation you are from, here is the claim from the Bible: Only Jesus can make you clean. Only Jesus can deal with your sin.
And let me tell you why. At first sight the Christian message seems absolutely ridiculous. What relevance does the brutal execution of a Jewish man have for people like you and me? It’s not immediately obvious, is it?
Millions of people have seen Mel Gibson’s film about the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. And it’s true to say that many people were touched emotionally by the graphic scenes of violence. Lots of tears were shed. But, unfortunately, The Passion of the Christ also left many people deeply confused. Here is what one man said as he walked out of the cinema: “I left with no better understanding of the Gospel than I had when I went in. If you asked me why they'd beaten this man up so badly, I couldn't tell you, and I still can't. If you asked me why he didn't fight back, I couldn't tell you.” Or in other words, he may have been emotionally touched by the film, like millions of others, but without an explanation of why Jesus died on the cross he was left completely clueless.
Are you someone like that? Perhaps you are interested in Christian things but if you were put on the spot you could not explain why Jesus’ death has any relevance for you.
Becoming a Christian is not a mystical experience; it is a decision of the mind. It is something we choose to do based on the evidence provided. So as Christians we have a responsibility to explain why Jesus had to die. Not simply to explain where he died or how he died but to inform people as clearly as we can why he died. We’re told in verse 15 that many kings will shut their mouths because of Jesus. But why? Why will these influential leaders suddenly keep their big mouths shut and pay attention to the mission of Jesus? “For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.” They will finally discover the relevance of Jesus. They will finally discover what all the fuss is about. And this will happen when Christians tell them why Jesus had to die.
So let’s find out what these Christians have to say. We meet them in verse 1. So far in this Servant Song we have been listening to the voice of God the Father but at the beginning of chapter 53 we have a change of vocals. We are now listening to the followers of Jesus. And this is what they have to say for themselves: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” You can hear their despondency, can’t you? They are convinced the death of Jesus is to be equated with the arm of the LORD. That is, with the God’s power. The arm of the LORD is another way of talking about God’s strength. But look at the suffering Jesus, look at the dying Jesus, listen to the mockery, listen to the whips. How can this be a demonstration of God’s power? We need an explanation. And this is what we are presented with in verses 4-6.
However, just before they describe why the death of Jesus is such good news, these Christian messengers reveal what they used think about Jesus before they understood his crucifixion. Have a look at verse 2. “He grew up before him [that is, God] like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. [There was nothing special about his upbringing. Nothing to merit an appearance on national television]. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 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.” As far as these people were concerned Jesus was like an insignificant extra in a movie. He was not the main billing. And as for those horrific injuries, well they simply made them squeamish. Do you ever feel light headed when someone promises to show you their scars? I am a complete wimp. I hate it when people offer to show me their injuries. It is much easier to look away than look straight ahead.
So what was their conclusion? As they observed the story of his life and death, what did they believe about Jesus? End of verse 3. “We esteemed him not.” They may have felt sympathy for him. They may have shed a tear, like so many did when they watched The Passion of the Christ. But in terms of personal relevance, they concluded that Jesus had nothing to offer them. They weighed up the significance of his brief and troubled existence and then decided he was a tragedy to be forgotten.
Is there anyone who feels like this tonight? Perhaps you know the story of this troubled Jewish man. Perhaps you sympathise with his sufferings and his pain. But is he relevant for you? That’s the big question. Does Jesus have anything useful to offer the world today?
Have a look at verse 4. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 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. 6 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.”
What persuaded these people to become followers of Jesus? Previously, they wanted nothing to do with Jesus. He was not for them. He had nothing to offer. But now they were determined to speak to as many people as they possibly could about his relevance for the contemporary world. It was a staggering reversal of opinion. So what caused the transformation? Someone told them about the substitution of Jesus.
Most of us understand the principle of substitution. Many sports have a rule whereby another player can take the place of his or her team mate. It is a very straightforward thing to understand. But here we see the principle operating in the world of religion. Why did Jesus have to die? To pay the penalty for his followers’ sins. We’ve already seen that rebellion against God cannot be overlooked. It is far too serious to be swept under the carpet. Every sin committed against the divine majesty must be paid for. But what about this for a great piece of news? What if those who wanted to return to God and ask for his forgiveness could be assured that their sins had been paid for by another? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? To be absolutely certain that on the day of judgement we could point to Jesus and say “My friend has paid.” Well, that’s the message of Isaiah 53.
The followers of Jesus are completely protected by the death of Jesus. Let me read verses 4 to 6 again with a particular emphasis on certain words. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 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. 6 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.”
Now do you see what is going on? The followers of Jesus Christ are describing the benefits of his death. They are announcing the protection from God’s judgement that anyone who becomes a Christian can enjoy. There is a punishment we deserve but those who take shelter with Jesus are destined for peace.
Recently, many holiday makers were terrified when large forest fires devastated many areas in Northern Greece. On BBC News we were confronted by pictures of screaming children and concerned parents. They knew the fire was deadly and so they fled as far away from it as possible. Now, thankfully, most of the people involved had a lucky escape. They were fortunate enough to find themselves in a situation where the fire could be avoided. But what can you do if a fire is approaching you and there is no where to run? Well, it may seem crazy but the best idea is to start a fire of your own! Fire cannot burn the same place twice. And so if we ever find ourselves in a field with a massive fire coming towards us we should keep our heads - much easier to say than to do - and then using all those basic fire making skills that we learned as a child we should burn the grass immediately surrounding us. And then once a large enough patch has been destroyed we should step into it and take refuge from the danger. Fire cannot burn the same place twice.
And the same is true with God’s judgement. The fire of his anger cannot be poured out twice. And so here is the good news for everyone who is a committed Christian. When we take refuge with Jesus we are protected from the anger of God. Or to use the language of Isaiah 53: “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him.”
“But wait a minute”, you say. “Hold on. It’s all very well talking about the benefits of Jesus’ death for others but there is still an important question to answer: What choice did Jesus have in this whole arrangement? Was he a willing participant or a helpless victim?” Have a look at verse 7. “He [Jesus] 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.” Now, remarkably, the priest is also the sacrifice. Jesus will use his own blood to deal with the problem of human sin. But the priest was not a victim. He volunteered for this mission. He was not the victim of historical circumstances. And we know this because he never fought back when the suffering came.
A sheep cannot tell the difference between a visit to the abattoir and a visit to the hairdressers. And so their silence is the silence of ignorance. But the silence of Jesus was the silence of obedience. And notice how far his obedience took him. Verse 8. ”By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.”
Now isn’t that exactly what happened to Jesus? The Jewish trial was a farce. It was completely illegal and completely unfair. Jesus was taken away by oppressive men who were jealous of his popularity. And then he was assigned a grave with the wicked, strung up on a cross between two criminals and left to die.
But listen to what we read in Matthew 27:57. “As evening approached [that is, the evening of Jesus’ crucifixion], there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.” Exactly as it had been predicted 700 years previously! Now I don’t know what you make of these predictions in the Bible but I love to hear them. It is good for my faith to discover that even the smallest details in the Old Testament are perfectly fulfilled in the life of Christ.
So let me finish with one more example. It’s there in verse 10. Although “it was the LORD’s will to crush him [Jesus] and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” Or in the words of verse 11, ”After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied.” It’s the resurrection, isn’t it? No question about it. The servant would die but after three days God the Father would raise him from the dead. So let’s get this clear. Christians do not follow a dead sacrifice, we follow a living priest. And the benefits of this are truly amazing. Have a look at the end of verse 11. This is what God the Father says about Jesus: “By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many [That is, he will declare his followers acceptable for heaven], and this is possible because “he will bear their iniquities.”
At the very beginning of my sermon I asked you to contemplate what will happen to you on the day of judgement. When you stand before your maker and he says, “What shall we do with your sin?”, what will you say? “Why don’t you just forget it? Why not let bygones be bygones.” But God will say, “No, no way. Look, I am a God of justice and I have given my word that sin must be paid for.”
Therefore, we only have two options. Either we pay for it ourselves eternally in a place called hell or we take refuge with Jesus and benefit from his protection. So let me ask you a personal question: Which option are you going to choose?
A number of years ago, the English Playwright, George Bernard Shaw, heard a very similar message to the one I have preached tonight. He was so offended by it that he stood up in the middle of the meeting, shouted out in a loud voice, “I’ll pay for my own sins”, and then he stormed out.
Many people in this building tonight have already come to Jesus to ask for his forgiveness. And I’m sure you will agree with me that it is a wonderful feeling to know that your sins have been forgiven.
The author Kingsley Amis gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in the last week of his life. He wasn’t a Christian but this is what he said: “One of Christianity’s great advantages is that it offers an explanation for sin. I haven’t got one. Christianity’s got one enormous thing right – original sin. For one of the great benefits of organised religion is that you can be forgiven your sins which must be a wonderful thing.” Then the interviewer said he paused for a long time and bowed his head low. Then he said “I mean I carry my sins around with me. There is nobody there to forgive them.”
The Bible says very clearly that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. The penalty of sin must be paid. But the great news of Isaiah 53 is that for all those who follow Jesus the penalty has already been paid. Jesus has died. The priest has become the sacrifice. And so right now forgiveness is available to anyone who decides to put their trust in him.
Now I’m very aware that many people in this building have already done that. Many of us sitting here tonight currently enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus as our King and friend.
But I’m sure there are some people here who have not yet taken refuge in him. Now perhaps you are someone who needs more information. Well, that’s fine. We run a course at St Johns called Christianity Explored. It starts on the 5th October and runs for six weeks. You won’t be asked to read out loud, sing or pray but you will be given an opportunity to ask any question you want and also to find out more about this person called Jesus. Why not come along? Why not give it a go for at least a week? You’ll find all the information you need on the cards at the end of the pews. And if you want to come all you’ve got to do is fill in your contact details and hand it to me at the end of the service. Or if you simply want to talk to me about anything I’ve said tonight then come and find me and we can have a conversation.
But maybe there are one or two individuals who want to become Christians straight away. You certainly don’t know everything but you have now reached the point in your life when you know enough to become a follower of Jesus. And if that’s you I want to finish by saying a prayer that you can say to become a Christian. The words are on the big screen behind me. I’ll read them through once so that you understand what I’m asking you to say and then I’ll invite you to pray them through with me. The prayer is simple.
“Lord Jesus, I’m sorry for all the sins I have committed. Thank you for paying the penalty for my wickedness when you died on the cross. Please forgive me and please help me to live with you as my King from this day forward. Amen.”
Now if you would like to become a Christian then let me invite you to pray this prayer with me. As I read it through again, simply repeat it silently as you speak to Jesus Christ in heaven. Let’s bow our heads as we pray.
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