Sunday, April 06, 2014

Isaiah 53: Prophecy on the Suffering Messiah

Luke 18: 31- 34    
31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

This painting is called The Shadow of Death. It is not portraying any event recorded in the Gospels. Rather, it depicts an imagined scene. Here Jesus is portrayed as a young man in the carpenter’s workshop before his public ministry had begun. Tired from work, he stretches his arms. His face carries a mix of rapture and agony. His shadow is silhouetted against the wall across his tool board, creating the impression of his body on the cross. In the corner, his mother Mary looks up, aghast to see the shadow of the cross looming over her. If you look carefully, you see that she is opening a chest that contains gifts from the wise men – gold, frankinscense and myrrh which represent his kingship, his divine glory and his death. Although this painting is not historical, it does truly depict a biblical insight that the shadow of the cross hangs over the entire life of Jesus.

In the ancient world, there were three “supreme penalties” that people fear the most. What are the worst methods to punish criminals to death? Beheading was a horrible way to go, being burnt alive was worse (more painful but sometimes, people died from inhaling the smoke before the fire reached them). But the most extreme death penalty one can have was by crucifixion. You catch a glimpse of how violent and agonizing a crucifixion looks like in the movie The Passion of the Christ.

And that is Jesus’ destiny prophesied in Scripture. It is his mission on earth. It is the reason He came.

That’s not something you would expect. Our Muslim neighbors would stress that the prophet of God cannot be allowed to be mocked and crucified. Or suffer defeat. Surely God will protect his servant by rescuing him and replace someone else to be crucified instead. We don’t want that kind of hero. According to a 16th century document called the “gospel of Barnabas”, Judas Iscariot was supposed to have substituted Jesus on the cross. You may like to know that manuscript written in Italian is more than 1500 years removed from the actual event. So it’s not a reliable historical source.

But the Gospel of Luke, written within only a few decades from the death of Christ, shows us that our Lord was not surprised by what’s going to happen in Jerusalem. He knew it was coming. He anticipated it. He was going to travel to the holy city one last time to celebrate the Passover. Jerusalem is the city where the temple is located, the sacred place where heaven and earth meets.

So Jesus rounds up His disciples and tells them that He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him. They will flog him and kill him. 

You may think: “Oh well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. John the Baptist his predecessor was also executed earlier. There was no freedom of speech in those days, right? So what’s so special about Jesus’ death?”

Well, in the case of Jesus, look at verse 31 here, his death and resurrection happened so that “everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled”. It has been foretold in Scripture. It has been predicted beforehand.

In other words, it may look to bystanders as though Jesus is the victim of betrayal and political conspiracy and mob violence and mock trials and corrupt religious leaders. Yes, we see that a lot in this cruel world. But what Jesus says is breath taking: I am in charge here. It’s all taking place just as Scripture has foretold. Nobody takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up. Jesus already predicted when he died, how he died, and when he rose from the dead. Yet he still made that journey to Jerusalem. Why?

1) Because all that prophets have predicted hundreds of years ago must be fulfilled.

You see, Jesus is not just another human prophet. Rather he is the ultimate goal of all prophecy. He is their purpose. He is the fulfillment of what the prophets have foretold. What was predicted hundreds of years before had come true in his life. If you are considering the claims of Christ and wonder if there is any good reason to suppose that His life and death are unique, here is a powerful clue: Fulfilled prophecies.

Let me read to you a prediction written in the 16th century and you tell me what event is being fulfilled here:

The great man will be struck down in the day by a thunderbolt,
An evil deed foretold by the bearer of a petition.
According to the prediction, another falls at night time.
Conflict at Reims, London and a pestilence in Tuscany.
(re-kan-s, tas-kanee)

Whose death do you think is being predicted here? You would never have guessed by just reading it. The answer is: The assassination of John F Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Who do you think wrote these four lines of prediction? Nostradamus.
OK, thunderbolts and gunshots: not terribly dissimilar. And the great man was struck down in the day, as John F. Kennedy was. The other falling at nighttime would be Bobby Kennedy (five years later).

Science Channel: Now, it can work if you want it to, but do you really think a Secret Service agent reading this passage in 1963 would have cause to be concerned?
Probably not. It is so vague, vague enough to mean any other great leader killed during day or night. And it doesn’t even say there were related as brothers. And what of Reims, London and Tuscany? Their deaths were not related to any conflict or pestilence in those places. Not a terribly impressive prediction.

Now let us return to the death of Christ. Where was it prophesied that the Promised One, the Messiah will die a violent death and rise again from the grave? It would be amazing if such prophecies were true. But were they really talking about Jesus? Or were they just too vague like this one?

Around 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah made one of the clearest predictions of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. It shed so much light to what He was doing that the book of Isaiah came to be known as the ‘fifth gospel’ apart from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  

I would like to read with you a portion of this prophecy about the suffering and vindication of the Messiah in Isaiah 53: The God of Israel says:

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. (resurrection, ascension, exaltation?)
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will 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.
 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (rejection by people in life)
Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, (the Roman spear pierced Jesus’ side)
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (substitutionary atonement language)
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 its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth. (Did not fight his arrest, accepted suffering)
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested? (False accusations, corrupt trial)
For he was cut off from the land of the living; (means: His suffering led to death)
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death, (Even though Jesus was poor and crucified people are left to the dogs, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea)
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth. (He has committed no crime or sin deserving death)
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his seed and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    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.
(This is all about the resurrection. Jesus would suffer, die, and buried in a rich man’s tomb. And then, after the suffering, he’d get out of his grave, he’d see the light of day, he’d enjoy life again, he would accomplish his mission to justify many and take away sin, that he’d reconcile us to God. “It is finished.” He will be satisfied to see His people, his seed prosper)
12 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. (Sin bearer)

Now, who is This Servant of the Lord? Who is Isaiah talking about in its original context? Some interpreters would say, in its original context, the servant of the Lord refers to the nation Israel. Israel has always been persecuted by the sinful Gentile nations and suffered greatly because of the transgressions of others. Think of Nazi Holocaust and similar tragic episodes throughout their long history. Yes, sometimes in the book of Isaiah the servant of the Lord is clearly the people of Israel (Isaiah 41: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.”). And sometimes the servant refers to the prophet Isaiah himself (Isaiah 49:5) "And now says the Lord, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring back Jacob to him." Here the prophet Isaiah is the servant who brings the people of Israel back to God.

But in Isaiah 53 the servant cannot be the prophet or the people. Because the Servant is portrayed as substituting himself for both the prophet and the people of Israel. Verse 4: "Surely he [the Servant] took up our pain and bore our suffering." Verse 5: "He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities." "Our" means "me, Isaiah" and the people of Israel. So this mysterious Servant is not the people of Israel and not Isaiah, because he is the substitute for both of them. His job is to restore Israel and bring light to the Gentile nations.  

Who then is this Servant of the Lord? Ancient Jewish rabbis understood it to refer to the Messiah. So it is not surprising to find that Jesus clearly understood this prophecy as being fulfilled in his own life and ministry. He is the suffering servant who is crushed for the sins of the people. What will soon happen to Him in Jerusalem is fulfillment of this prophecy. He himself said, "The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve (to be a Servant) and to give his life a ransom [a substitute!] for many" (Mark 10:45).  

In all the history of Israel, no one comes close to fulfilling this prophecy apart from Jesus. In Acts 8 there is an Ethiopian eunuch (a diplomat) who was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip joined him in his chariot. The eunuch asked, "Of whom does the prophet Isaiah speak, of himself, or of someone else?" Philip opened his mouth and beginning from this scripture he proclaimed Jesus to him (Acts 8:35).  

Let me remind all of us that this was written 700 years before Jesus was born and there was no way Isaiah could have known it unless it was revealed to him. This passage is packed with details about the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

2) Why did Jesus die? Why did He press on to Jerusalem knowing certain death awaits him?

What is the meaning of His death? Actually it would be more accurate to say there are multiple layers of meanings in the Cross of Christ. Like a diamond, it has many sides. The cross is God’s victory over the powers of Satan because sin and death have no dominion over those who are in Christ. It is Jesus’ non violence unmasking the corruption behind oppressive powers. The cross is Christ satisfying God’s holy requirements in the law. The cross is a demonstration of how much God’s love is for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us so our indifference melts away. The cross inspires us to follow Him in self-sacrifice and self-giving.

All these are precious ways of understanding the cross of Christ that should we should recover. And I would also point out that all this is true because sacrifice is at the heart of the cross. Jesus took up our pain and bore our sins. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. It was the Lord’s will to crush him as a sin offering.

What the movies like Passion of the Christ or the historical books cannot show us is what goes on spiritually on the cross. They cannot show us the reality that we are separated from God by our sin. That God is alienated from us by His holy anger. God doesn’t lose his temper for no reason at all. His anger is provoked always by sin.

 Some people say this is not fair. This is like me saying “You offended me. So in order that I can forgive you, I must go and beat up Yoong Zhen first”. Some even call it ‘cosmic child abuse’ – an angry Father punishes his own innocent son for the wrongs of others. But that’s a serious misunderstanding of what the cross is about.

Firstly, Jesus is not an unwilling third party here. He is not forced to do it. He willingly embraced the Cross for the joy set before him. He and the Father are one in this plan.

Secondly, God the Father so loved the world that He gave his only Son. It is not as though he is reluctant and needs to be pacified by Jesus. Precisely because God is love that He has made a way for sinful men to be forgiven without ignoring sin… without downplaying sin. It is not just another man that the Father is punishing for our sins, but Jesus the embodiment of God took upon Himself the sins of us all. The One who passes judgment now steps down and receives the penalty.  

It is in the death of Christ as a substitute and sacrifice that sin is removed and God’s wrath is absorbed, so that God can look on us without displeasure and man can look on God without fear. Sin is cleansed (expiated) and God is satisfied (propitiated).

It is not justice. But it is grace. God is showing us the love and mercy that we do not deserve.

3) When Jesus predicted His death, the disciples were clueless. They did not get it. Does it surprise you? How can that happen? Is it because they couldn’t hear properly or what? Or are they confused because what Jesus predicted was not what they wanted to hear? Could it be that their misunderstanding is caused by their refusal to understand? 

They are ever hearing but never understanding because they wanted a kingdom that brings judgment down on the bad guys. The Messiah should not suffer. He should cause our enemies to suffer. We want a Messiah who brings power, prestige and deliverance to us. A crucified Messiah is not what we would expect. He is supposed to be the one crucifying others. Lest we become too harsh on the disciples, let’s ask ourselves: Do we really understand any of this? What kind of Savior are we looking for? What kingdom are we expecting?

Do we seek a kingdom where God blesses us with a lovely spouse who is always loving; always understanding and agrees with us all the time? A kingdom where we are blessed with above average children, always fun to play with, always healthy and obeys us all the time? A kingdom where our nasty colleagues get fired and evil people get zapped right now? A kingdom where our bank account grows steadily and keeps us safe and secure?  

But the focal point of Jesus’ mission is not our comfort. It is sacrifice. And that’s hard to understand and if understood, it’s even hard to accept. Take up your cross and follow me. Die to sin, be alive to God.

Here is Jesus saying: I must go to Jerusalem. I must go to the cross. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone and lonely. But if it dies, it breaks forth into new life and produces much fruit.

The Christian life begins when we are forgiven of our sins and the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us. So our discipleship is shaped by the cross and the resurrection from first to last. As we die to our selfish pride, die to our greed and sinful ambitions, die to the mindset of the world, we become alive to God, alive to His purpose and design for our lives, alive to what it means to be in community.

Only through death can we experience newness of life and joy in Christ.

And I wonder: How would we die to sin today? Is there a legitimate pleasure that is controlling us, entangling us from walking closer to God? Is there something that our Lord is asking you to let go? Is He calling you to obedience in some area in your life? Perhaps He is calling you to sacrifice comfort to pursue something much greater? Are we shaped by the self giving pattern of Christ?

Friends, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is a once-off event that changed history. But death and resurrection is also an ongoing process in our spiritual life… dying to self and being raised to new life is the shape of Christian discipleship. We have a cruciform spirituality. 


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