Doing the Unthinkable
Lough Fook, a Chinese Christian, was moved with compassion for those of his compatriots who had become slaves in South American mines. He wanted to give them the hope of the gospel, but how could he have access to them? His solution was to sell himself for a term of five years as a slave. He was transported to Demerara, where he toiled in the mines and told his fellow workers about Jesus.
Lough Fook died—but not until 200 people were liberated from hopelessness by accepting Jesus as their Savior.
Such amazing self-sacrifice for the good of others! What an example! By doing the unthinkable; that is, humbly “taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7, NRSV), Jesus, too, had reached the unreachable—you and me and all the world steeped and lost in the abyss of sin.
This week, we’ll see this incredible event prophesied hundreds of years before it happened.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, March 6.
If Isaiah intended to convey only information, he would lay out all the details regarding the Messiah at once. But in order to teach, persuade, and give his audience an encounter with the Servant of the Lord, he develops a rich fabric of recurring themes in symphonic fashion. He unfolds God’s message in steps so that each aspect can be grasped in relation to the rest of the picture. Isaiah is an artist whose canvas is the soul of his listener.
We found in Isaiah 49:7 that God’s Servant is despised, abhorred, and “the slave of rulers” (NRSV) but that “ ‘kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves’ ” (NRSV). Here in Isaiah 50, we learn that the valley is deeper for the gentle Teacher whose words sustain the weary (Isa. 50:4). The path to vindication leads through physical abuse (Isa. 50:6).
This abuse sounds bad to those of us in modern Western cultures. But in an ancient Near Eastern culture, honor was a life-and-death matter for a person and his or her group. If you insulted and mistreated someone like this, you’d better be well protected; if they got half a chance, the victim and/or his clan would surely retaliate.
King David attacked and conquered the country of Ammon (2 Sam. 10:1–12) because its king had merely “seized David’s envoys, shaved off half the beard of each, cut off their garments in the middle at their hips, and sent them away” (2 Sam. 10:4, NRSV). But in Isaiah 50 people strike the Servant, painfully pluck out hairs from His beard, and spit at Him.
What makes these actions an international, intercosmic incident is that the victim is the envoy of the divine King of kings. In fact, by comparing Isaiah 9:6, 7 and Isaiah 11:1–16 with other “servant” passages, we found that the Servant is the King, the mighty Deliverer! But with all this power and honor, for some unthinkable reason, He does not save Himself! This is so strange that people didn’t believe it. At Jesus’ cross, leaders mocked Him: “ ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ ”(Luke 23:35, NRSV); “ ‘Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’ ” (Matt. 27:42, NRSV).
Isaiah 52:13–53:12, known as the “Suffering Servant Poem,” confirms Isaiah’s reputation as “the gospel prophet.” In harmony with the excellence of the gospel, the poem towers above other literature. Though breathtakingly short, every phrase is packed with profound meaning that reveals the core of God’s unthinkable quest to save a race steeped and lost in sin.
This is not the “milk” of Isaiah’s word. He has prepared his audience by developing the Messianic theme from the early part of his book. In following the overall course of the Messiah’s life on earth, the prophet started with His conception and birth (Isa. 7:14), introduced His identity as a divine Davidic king (Isa. 9:6, 7), elaborated on His work of restoration for Israel (Isa. 11:1–16), and quiet ministry of liberation from injustice and suffering (Isa. 42:1–7). Then Isaiah revealed that the Messiah’s grand drama includes the contrast of tragedy before exaltation (Isa. 49:1–12, Isa. 50:6–10). Now the Suffering Servant Poem plumbs the depths of the tragedy.
Isaiah 52:13–53:1 introduces the poem with a preview containing a stunning contrast: the Servant will prosper and be exalted, but His appearance will be marred beyond recognition. Who can believe it? Isaiah 53:2, 3 begins a painful descent from the Servant’s origin and ordinary appearance to His sorrow and rejection. Isaiah 53:4–6 pauses to explain that His suffering is really our punishment, which He bears to heal us. Isaiah 53:7–9 continues the innocent Servant’s descent to the grave.
In Isaiah 53:10–12, the Servant ascends to the exalted reward foreseen at the beginning of the poem starting in Isaiah 52:13, with the added insight that His sacrifice to save others is the will of God.
Compare this poem to the “valley” shape of Philippians 2:5–11, where Jesus begins in the form of God but descends by emptying Himself to take on the bondage of human form, humbling Himself down to death, and the lowest of all deaths: death on a cross. Therefore, God highly exalts Him so that everyone should acknowledge Him as Lord (compare Isa. 49:7).
In Isaiah 52:13, God’s Servant is highly exalted, but without warning, the next verse describes His appearance as so disfigured He cannot be recognized as one of the “sons of men.” The New Testament describes the factors that marred Jesus’ appearance, including scourging, a crown of thorns, crucifixion, but, above all, bearing the sins of the human race. Sin was never intended to be natural for humans; bearing it made the “Son of Man” appear inhuman.
Compare this with the story of Job, who suddenly plummeted from a position of great wealth, honor, and power to a miserable wretch sitting among ashes on the ground and scraping his painful sores with a potsherd (Job 1, 2). The contrast was so great that not even Job’s friends recognized him at first (Job 2:12). The question is: Why does Job suffer? Why must God’s Messiah suffer? Neither deserve it. Both are innocent. Why, then, the suffering?
Look at the questions in Isaiah 53:1. These questions emphasize the challenge of believing the unbelievable (compare with John 12:37–41) and warn us to sit down for the rest of the story. But the questions also imply an appeal. In this context, the parallel between the two questions implies that the Lord’s arm or power of salvation (compare with Isa. 52:10) is revealed to those who believe the report. Do you want to experience God’s saving power? Then believe the report.
Like a vulnerable plant, apparently of no special value, and despised (Isa. 53:2, 3)—that’s the depiction we are given here of the Suffering Servant. Isaiah has quickly brought us through innocent youth to the brink of the abyss. Even with the background provided earlier, we are not prepared in the sense that we are resigned to the Servant’s fate. To the contrary! Isaiah has taught us to cherish the Child born to us, the supreme Prince of Peace. Others despise Him, but we know who He really is.
As someone has said: “We have met the enemy and they are us.” The Servant is not the first to be despised, rejected, or a man of suffering. King David was all of those when he fled from his son Absalom (2 Sam. 15:30). But the suffering borne by this Servant is not His own and does not result from His own sin. Nor does He bear it merely for another individual; “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6, NRSV).
The answer to the question “Why?” is Isaiah’s testing truth: Because of God’s love, His Messiah would choose to suffer. But why? Isaiah drives the “golden spike” in to complete the unthinkable truth: He would choose to suffer in order to reach the unreachable, and the unreachable are us!
Those who do not understand regard the Servant as “struck down by God” (Isa. 53:4, NRSV). Just as Job’s friends thought his sin must have caused his suffering, and just as Jesus’ disciples asked Him “ ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ” (John 9:2, NRSV), those who saw Jesus on the cross assumed the worst. Didn’t Moses say that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23; compare Num. 25:4)?
Yet, all this was God’s will (Isa. 53:10). Why? Because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13, NRSV). Because God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“What a price has been paid for us! Behold the cross, and the Victim uplifted upon it. Look at those hands, pierced with the cruel nails. Look at His feet, fastened with spikes to the tree. Christ bore our sins in His own body. That suffering, that agony, is the price of your redemption.”— Ellen G. White, God’s Amazing Grace, p. 172.
The Hebrew word refers to a “guilt” or “reparation offering” (Lev. 5:14–6:7, Lev. 7:1–7), which could atone for deliberate wrongs against other people (Lev. 6:2, 3). Such sins were singled out by Isaiah (Isaiah 1–3; Isa. 10:1, 2; Isaiah 58). Also, the sinner must restore to the wronged person that which was taken, plus a penalty, before offering the sacrifice to receive forgiveness from God (Lev. 6:4–7; compare Matt. 5:23, 24). In a case of inadvertent misuse of something that belongs to God, the reparation goes to Him (Lev. 5:16).
Now we can understand Isaiah 40:2, where God comforts His exiled people by telling them they have paid enough reparation for their sins. But following the reparation, there must be a sacrifice. Here it is in Isaiah 53: God’s Servant, instead of a ram, is led like a sheep to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7) on behalf of people who have gone astray (Isa. 53:6).
Although “cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8, NRSV; compare Dan. 9:26), completely consumed in the sacrifice that kindles the flame of hope for us, the Servant comes forth from death, the land of no return, to receive exaltation; see His “offspring”; and prolong His days (Isa. 53:10–12).
Ps. 32:1, 2
1 Pet. 2:24
Further Thought: “Christ bore our sins in His own body on the tree. . . . What must sin be, if no finite being could make atonement? What must its curse be if Deity alone could exhaust it? The cross of Christ testifies to every man that the penalty of sin is death. . . . Oh, must there be some strong bewitching power which holds the moral senses, steeling them against the impressions of the Spirit of God?”—Ellen G. White, Our High Calling, p. 44.
“The law of God’s government was to be magnified by the death of God’s only-begotten Son. Christ bore the guilt of the sins of the world. Our sufficiency is found only in the incarnation and death of the Son of God. He could suffer, because [He was] sustained by divinity. He could endure, because He was without one taint of disloyalty or sin. Christ triumphed in man’s behalf in thus bearing the justice of punishment. He secured eternal life to men, while He exalted the law, and made it honorable.”—Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 302.
Summary: Having told about the birth, identity, and career of God’s Deliverer, Isaiah finally reveals the supreme tragedy that gives us hope: to reach, save, and heal lost people, including us, God’s Servant voluntarily bears our suffering and punishment.