Behold, my servant will prosper, he will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted. Just as many were astonished at you, my people, so his appearance was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men. Thus he will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of him; for what they had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand.
Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; he has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, he was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him.
Nowhere in all the Old Testament does the gospel of Jesus Christ shine more clearly than in Isaiah 53. Seven hundred years before Jesus came into the world, God opened the eyes of his prophet to see into the very heart of Christ's saving work. And the heart of that saving work is substitution. The Messiah is pierced and crushed in our place. The righteous in the place of the unrighteous. The loving shepherd in the place of the lost sheep. The exalted king in the place of the rebel subjects.
So when we look at Isaiah 53 for the next several weeks, what we have is not only a beautiful revelation of Christ's saving death in the place of sinners, but also a stunning validation of its truth. Christ not only died for sinners so that we could be saved, he died for sinners in fulfillment of explicit prophecy so that we could know more surely that we are saved. When you read the story of your salvation in detail 700 years before it happened, you have not only revelation, but validation.
And so I invite you this morning not only to revel in the great substitutionary work of Christ that takes away your condemnation, but also to be strengthened in your confidence that this is no myth, but the historical work of God who told his story long before it happened.
This passage of Scripture is about the "servant of the Lord." Notice 52:13, "Behold my servant will prosper . . . " (cf. v. 11).
Who Is This Servant?
Sometimes in the book of Isaiah the servant of the Lord is the people of Israel. Isaiah 41:8, 10: "But you Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen . . . fear not for I am with you." Sometimes Israel is pictured as the servant of the Lord.
Sometimes the servant is 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 serves the people.
Neither Israel Nor Isaiah
But in Isaiah 53 the servant can't be the prophet or the people because the servant is pictured as substituting himself for both the prophet and the people. Verse 4: "Surely he [the Servant] has born our griefs and our sorrows he carried." Verse 5: "He was pierced through for our transgression, he was crushed for our iniquities." "Our" means "me, Isaiah" and the people of Israel who will believe on this servant of the Lord. So the servant is not the people and not Isaiah, because he is the substitute for Isaiah and the people. He is their servant.
Jesus the Messiah
Who then was this servant of the Lord? The New Testament answer is that he was Jesus the Messiah. Peter, for example, quotes Isaiah 53:5 ("by his stripes we are healed" in 1 Peter 2:24) and applies it to Jesus. He says in 1 Peter 1:11, "The prophets sought to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow."
And in Acts 8 the Ethiopian eunuch was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip joined him in his chariot. The eunuch asked, "Of whom does the prophet speak, of himself, or of someone else?" And Luke tells us that "Philip opened his mouth and beginning from this scripture he preached Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35).
In all the history of Israel, no one comes close to fulfilling this prophecy besides Jesus. He himself said, "The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve [that is, to be the suffering servant] and to give his life a ransom [a substitute!] for many" (Mark 10:45).
So let me try to open this prophecy for you this morning so that you may enjoy its revelation of Christ, and be strengthened by its validation as prophecy, and, I pray for some not yet persuaded, be drawn into the salvation it offers.
Five Stages of What Isaiah Sees
Let me try to take you with me through five stages of what Isaiah has seen.
1. Rebel Subjects
Chapter 53 begins, "Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" The answer to those rhetorical questions is: scarcely anyone. Why not? Why did Isaiah then, and why do we today, find such unbelief when the message of salvation is preached?
One answer is given in verse 6: "All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way." This is the essence of rebellion and unbelief—a people going their own way.
Just think of it! Think of the weight of it and the ungrateful rebellion of it. God created all people for his glory (Isaiah 43:7). But how many today keep this before their eyes and ask each day, let alone each hour: How shall I not go astray from the way of God? How shall I escape the pride and presumption of going my own way when God made me for his way and for his honor?
Not many? In fact the easiest way not to feel like a rebel against the King is not to think about the King (or the Shepherd). If you can manage to put him out of your mind, then nothing in the world seems more natural than to do your own thing and go your own way. It doesn't feel like rebellion. It feels like responsibility.
So this is the condition that Isaiah begins with. This is what makes substitution necessary. All of us are rebel subjects. We don't like anyone telling us what to do. And to keep God's will from conflicting with our own, we just don't think about him. "All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way." My own way. Give me my own way! That is our condition. We are rebel subjects.
2. Rejected Servant
The next glimpse into what Isaiah sees is a glimpse of the rejected Servant. Verse 3: "He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, he was despised and we did not esteem him."
When God sent his Servant to save the rebel subjects, we despised him. Why? The answer is given in verse 2: "He grew up before him [God] like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; he has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him. Nor appearance that we should be attracted to him."
In other words, his whole demeanor, his style, his view of life and money and possessions and lust and prayer and worship and pride and humility and fear and faith—none of it endorsed our own rebellion. We didn't feel endorsed around Jesus. He was so lowly and unimpressive that our aspirations for power and reputation felt evil. His happy poverty made our wanting more and more feel foolish. His willingness to suffer for others made our craving for comforts feel selfish.
And so to protect ourselves we despised him. We even hoped it was God that struck him. That would be a good endorsement of our rejection. And we rejected him. He was an offense. A rejected Servant.
3. Ransoming Substitute
But he knew that would happen. It didn't take him off guard. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. And so the next glimpse we get through Isaiah's eyes is a glimpse of the rejected Servant as a ransoming Substitute.
Verse 4a: "Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried . . . " Verse 5: "But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed." And verse 6b: "But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him."
This is the heart of the gospel of Jesus—substitution. This is the great message of good news that God has for rebel subjects who are willing to lay down their rebellion. Instead of collapsing in grief over our rejection, he bears our griefs. Instead of increasing our sorrows, he carries our sorrows. Instead of avenging our transgressions, he is pierced for them in our place. Instead of crushing us for our iniquities, he is crushed for them as our substitute. And all the chastisement and whipping that belong to us for our rebellion he takes on himself in order that we might have peace and be healed.
You don't have to understand all the intricacies of how this works in order to be healed and forgiven any more than you have to understand how a computer works in order to write poems on your word processor. God tells us what we need to know. His rejected Servant is in fact a ransoming Substitute for rebel subjects. That's the gospel.
4. Restored Sight
But that's not all of it. There's more. The gospel doesn't save unless we see it and grasp it for our own. But rebel subjects don't do that. At least not on our own. But Isaiah says that something will happen—and this is the fourth stage of Isaiah's message: there will be restored sight to the rebel subjects.
Isaiah 52:15: "He [the Servant] will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand."
Even though Isaiah 53:1 says that scarcely any have believed Isaiah's message, because the arm of the Lord had not been revealed, nevertheless 52:15 says that the arm of the Lord will be revealed.
God will not let the work of his Servant be done in vain. He will bare his arm and sprinkle the nations with the healing blood of his Servant (v. 15a) and the kings of the earth will see and understand. Their eyes will be opened. Their sight will be restored.
Paul quoted this verse in Romans 15:21 to justify his hope in the success of frontier missions. "I aspired to preach the gospel not where Christ was already named . . . But as it is written, 'Those who had no news of him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand'" (cf. Acts 26:18).
In other words, the gospel of Isaiah—the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news not only because the heart of it is God's rejected Servant dying as a ransoming Substitute for rebel subjects, but also because God guarantees that he will bare his arm and open the eyes of kings to see and believe. He will restore sight.
Isaiah 52:13 begins, "Behold, my servant shall prosper!" He will succeed. His substitutionary ransom will not abort. God has sent the servant; God will make sure that people see the servant. He will restore sight so that rebel subjects see the servant no longer as rejected but as the glorious ransoming substitute that he really is.
5. Reverent Silence
Which brings us to one last glimpse through Isaiah's eyes (again in 52:15). When God sprinkles the nations with the blood of his Servant and grants the kings of the earth to see what they had not been told and to understand what they had not heard, the result will be reverent silence: "The kings will shut their mouth on account of him."
And why do they do this? Isaiah 52:13 gives the answer: "Behold, my servant will prosper, he will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted."
The kings will be silent because the suffering servant is the sovereign of the universe. He is high. He is lifted up. He is greatly exalted. This is what God grants them the eyes to see—the majesty of Jesus. The despised and rejected servant is the Lord of glory. Let there be a reverent silence before him.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.