Isaiah 52:13-53:10 The Cross and the Fat
A couple of years ago I preached a series entitled, “Who is Responsible?” We considered persons responsible for Jesus getting on the cross. There were the disciples – Judas who betrayed Jesus, Peter who denied him, and the rest who deserted him. There were the religious leaders who captured him and delivered him over to the Romans. There was Herod who could have freed Jesus, but turned him back over to the Romans. There was Pilate who, even though he knew Jesus was innocent, ordered him to be crucified. We considered the sinners for whom Jesus died – the thieves on the crosses beside him and even Jesus’ mother standing at the foot of the cross. This morning we get to the one person behind the scene, the one who wrote the script of which all the others were merely playing their parts. We come to God the Father.
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
53:1 Who has believed what they heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
Thus begins the great, moving prophesy of the Suffering Servant. Our interest is to pick up on the other Person of this passage. Note that it begins, Behold, my servant… Whose servant? He is the servant of the LORD, Yahweh.
The Suffering Servant passage continues the theme begun all the way back in chapter 40, that “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” through the redemption of God’s people, Israel. He will redeem Israel through his servant, as he explains in chapter 42. On his servant he will place his Spirit; his servant will bring justice, not only to Israel, but to the nations. Indeed, in chapter 49, we learn that his servant will be “a light for the nations, that [his] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (6).
In chapter 52, the salvation of Jerusalem, which represents all of God’s people, is announced by the LORD. Listen to this glorious proclamation:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
11 Depart, depart, go out from there;
touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves,
you who bear the vessels of the Lord.
12 For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight,
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
That is neat imagery. God is going to bare his holy arm. He is going to flex his muscles and show how strong he is. Then he is going to call out his people from captivity. He will protect them in the front and in the back as their rear guard. The captives file out of their stronghold with God making the way ahead of them against the enemy. They look behind, and there is God covering their rear and fighting off attackers.
Who do they really see? They see God’s Servant. He is God’s “holy arm,” who delivers God’s people. Verse 13 carries the momentum: Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. Good, good. Just what we would expect of a mighty victorious champion. And then, the cold, sobering truth of what this champion will do; of what will happen to him. The Servant of God has come to suffer. This is the means by which God has chosen to reveal his arm.
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
As if suffering is not enough, we learn that God causes the suffering. Look at verse 10: Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
And God punishes his servant/son for what appears to be false accusation. Read verses 4-6:
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Verses 7-9 present the Servant’s passive receiving of affliction:
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
the completeness of the judgment:
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
and the Servant’s innocence:
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
What gives? Why does God the Father bring judgment to bear against God the Son, his beloved Servant? Verse 5 gives the answer:
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
The Son of God suffered and died on our behalf. God laid upon him our sins, and then gave him the punishment due to us.
In light of this passage, we are to understand that the passion of Christ, far from being a story of how wicked men defeated the love of God that Jesus brought, is instead the enactment of God’s plan to save his people through the sacrifice of his Son. This plan is called the substitutionary atonement. Jesus Christ atoned for our sins by serving as a sacrificial substitute, much like the animal sacrifices offered at the Jerusalem temple altars.
Let the full weight of this plan sink in. The Shorter Catechism question #25 says that Christ offered himself up as “a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice.” Divine justice means God’s justice. We might point to the failure of Jewish justice by the religious leaders; we might point to the failure of Roman justice by Pilate; but ultimately Jesus went to the cross so that divine justice would be properly satisfied.
How does this understanding of the crucifixion sound to you? It doesn’t sound good to many. The idea of God the Father bearing wrath against his innocent Son is the scandal of the gospel. Let me give a few quotes, not by the unreligious, but by ministers who would consider themselves Christian.
The non-violent God of Jesus comes to be depicted as a God of unequalled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is closest and most precious to him, but also holds the whole of humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipated and required. Against such an image of God the revolt of atheism is an act of pure religion (Dick Wolfe paraphrasing Walter Wink).
'The Doctrine of Atonement' – the belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creature to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger – is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all those who oppose the idea for many centuries…". Gail Seavey quoting Hosea Ballou
I do not see God as some vengeful, imperious being who needs someone to suffer because of sin… Joe Dunham
The cross does not represent a sacrifice required by a blood-seeking deity (Marcus Borg).
As I said, these quotes are from individuals who are ministers and theologians who would consider themselves Christian or at least sympathetic to Christianity. C. S. Lewis, by the way, was uncomfortable with the “theory” as he would describe it. His chapter in Mere Christianity on the subject of what the cross accomplishes is taken up mostly with a defense of why we don’t need to understand it deeply.
The above writers make clear their reason for repudiating the substitutionary atonement. In their minds, such a concept makes God out to be bloodthirsty, excessively vengeful, and just plain unjust. In particular (and I think this is what bothers them the most) is that it makes us humans out to be, well…totally depraved. In brief, it cannot be reconciled with the concept of a God who is love and mankind who is worth loving.
As I was preparing this sermon, I thought first to justify substitutionary atonement of the cross. And one could present a good scriptural presentation of God's holy character and man's total depravity, thus necessitating atonement. But what struck me as I contemplated the comments were the strong emotional reactions against the concept of Christ dying in our place to satisfy God’s justice. The individuals are appalled at such an idea. As already noted, such an idea to them projects God as a terrible despot who hates mankind and even his own Son.
“We may not know yet what full Humanity is, but we know inhumanity when we see it.” If this is what God is like, then I’m better than God. How can I worship a God I secretly despise? It seems like the message of love is too much for these people [Evangelicals]… The very essence of Christianity has been lost. Nothing has been gained, and despite all the fluffy songs about wonderful Jesus, this brand of Christianity is an iron fist in a velvet glove (Wolf).
Note that strong negative reaction. It is striking precisely because of the complete opposite emotion and view of God that Scripture presents. Let’s look at them.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16).
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God… while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Romans 5:6-10).
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [i.e. satisfy God’s demand for justice] for our sins (1 John 4:8-10).
Far from making God out to be vengeful toward mankind, Scripture thinks the cross displays the marvelous love of God for his creatures who all had rebelled against him.
What about God the Father’s regard for his own Son? Denny Weaver writes: “[The] classic atonement doctrine [portrays] an image of God as either divine avenger or punisher and/or as a child abuser, one who arranges the death of one child for the benefit of the others.” Is God a child abuser? Listen to his Son:
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:24-26).
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father (John 10:17-18).
Listen to the Father:
and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him (Matthew 17:5).
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:27-28).
This does not sound like the speech of a child being abused. Indeed, what we see is an intimate love that, if anything, goes beyond the experience of human love.
My own take on the adverse reaction to the idea of Christ paying the price for our sins on the cross is that it sheds more light about the individuals who are objecting than on God. What the objectors are right about, and what it is that really bothers them, is that such a concept of the atonement made on the cross puts mankind in a bad light, and, yes, makes God angry with us. God should not be so angry, they believe. Either he ought to see that our sins are not so bad as to merit condemnation, or he ought to be big enough to pass over our sins; at least he should not overreact too harshly.
Contrast such an attitude with that of the apostle Paul who once described himself as the chief of sinners (cf. 1 Timothy 1:16):
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).
Do you get the point I am driving at? It is we who know we are sinners; we who know we have no hope based on our lovability; we who know and value God being a holy and just God; who know that Christ, the Son of God, died for us by his own free will and his love for us and even greater love for his Father; it is we who believe Scripture, all of Scripture; it is we, then, who, as the prayer of Ephesians 3:18-19 says, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
And if you don’t know such love of Christ and of the Father; if you wonder what all the fuss is about regarding your sin; if you are mad at such a God that would condemn you; then my prayer for you is that you be given the eyes to see such mercy and love that are more profound than “are dreamt of in your philosophy.” For what you cannot have, what you cannot experience with your “nice” God is the grace of God who so loved the world that he gave he only begotten, his dearly beloved, Son to save whoever would believe in him. You may think you know a God of love, but you cannot know such wondrous love that would cause the Father and the Son to pay the greatest price for your soul.
That prayer just read…know that it is our prayer for you.
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