The Suffering Servant

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 50:1-11

The great figure described in Isaiah wasn’t just the Servant of the Lord; he was a suffering Servant, a Savior who delivers by means of his suffering.

In 1885 former president Ulysses S. Grant was engaged in a race with death. He was dying of cancer and he was trying to finish writing his personal Memoirs. Grant was struggling to complete this task, not only so that his story could be told, but also because he knew his wife would need the money the book would bring in. So each day Ulysses S. Grant forced himself to work, enduring the constant pain with the same fortitude with which he had faced rebel armies twenty years before. In the midst of his struggle he commented in a letter to a friend, “A verb signifies to be, to do, or to suffer; I signify all three.”

That could even more truly be said of Jesus Christ. If anyone knew what it meant to suffer, it was he. In fact, the Apostles’ Creed summarizes our Lord’s entire life on earth from his birth to his death with this one verb: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” It is an apt choice, for “suffer” not only means to experience pain, it also has the older sense of permitting or allowing. Christ’s suffering was voluntary; he permitted it to happen to him. Jesus could have put a stop to his suffering at any point that he wished.

He could have come down from the cross, as his enemies mockingly suggested, but he chose not to. He willingly endured it all, not just for the sake of those he came to save, but because he is the perfect servant of the Lord whose ruling desire is to only obey and carry out the Lord’s will no matter what the cost to himself. In the prophetic words of Isaiah 50 we can hear the voice of Jesus himself: “He awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught . . . . and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward” (Isaiah 50:4-5).

The Suffering Servant

The Lord’s suffering servant goes on to say this in Isaiah 50:

I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

Isaiah 50:6-7

To understand the full meaning of these verses from the third of Isaiah’s servant songs, we have to read these words from the 50th chapter of Isaiah with the New Testament Gospels never far from our thoughts. The prophet describes how the servant of the Lord suffered in a variety of ways. He writes in the first person, putting words into the servant’s mouth — words that were literally fulfilled, we believe, in the passion of Jesus Christ.

First of all, the servant’s suffering was certainly physical. In fact, Isaiah draws attention to the pain of a brutal beating: “I gave my back to those who strike” (v. 6a; see Psalm 129:3). In the Gospel accounts we read of how Jesus was beaten, not once but twice in the hours before his crucifixion. First came the beating at the hands of the high priest’s servants, and then the terrible flogging by the Roman soldiers at Pilate’s command. But that was only a prelude to the awful physical torment of crucifixion itself: the searing pain of spikes being driven through skin, nerves, tendon, muscle and bone; the wrench of being hoisted upright as the cross was fixed in place—and only then did the real torture begin, continuing with each gasping breath until the last.

We must never allow ourselves to forget Jesus Christ’s real humanity. Crucifixion wasn’t any easier for him to bear than it would have been for you or me. Sometimes we think that because he was God, somehow he skated through this experience but Christ had exactly the same physiology we do; his nervous system reacted to the cross just as ours would have done. Under the horrific abuses his body endured, the pain center in his brain received exactly the same impulses ours would receive, and the trauma affected him exactly as it would anyone. The fact that Jesus was God did not make the cross any easier for him, or his physical suffering any less.

The interesting thing, though, is that the New Testament writers do not put much emphasis at all upon Jesus’s physical sufferings on the cross. None of the Gospels dwell on this aspect of the crucifixion; there are no lurid details, no vivid descriptions of the blood and the pain. Such things do come, but they come much later in church history, in a certain type of medieval devotional writing and Christian art. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’s blood is not even mentioned in the crucifixion narrative until after he dies, and then only in the reference to his pierced side, which John records mostly for the symbolic meaning of the flowing blood, mixed with water. So we may conclude that our Lord’s physical suffering, real and terrible though it was, is not the most important aspect of his passion and death.

The most important suffering Christ endured upon the cross was spiritual in nature, as he identified with us, accepted our place of punishment, and took our sins upon himself, experiencing the dreadful curse of God’s wrath upon all the evil of the world. Isaiah does speak about this, and he does it in the magnificent 53rd chapter, which will be our subject for the next message in this series.

But here in chapter 50, a third kind of suffering is also evident in the passion of Christ: that is, emotional suffering. This is also part of the servant’s experience of which Isaiah 50 speaks.

I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. (v. 6)

In addition to suffering physically and spiritually, Jesus also suffered psychologically, from the humiliation and mockery to which he was subjected by the taunts and jeers of his tormenters. Think, for example, of the trial before Caiaphas the high priest, when they blindfolded him, struck him across the face, and then called upon him to prophesy who it was that had hit him.

Recall the Roman soldiers draping a purple cloth over his lacerated back, putting a scepter in his hand, crowning him with thorns and then falling before him in mock submission. Remember the crowd at the foot of the cross, laughing at this miracle worker’s inability to save himself, and promising that they would believe in him if he would just pull himself free and come down from the cross. Everybody got into the act.

And anyone who has ever been the helpless target of cruel jokes and mean laughter knows exactly what Jesus experienced. This kind of suffering may not have been as horrible as the wounds that were inflicted on his body, or as profound as bearing the Father’s righteous judgment upon the sins of the world, but it was real enough. And Jesus’ willingness to accept even such humiliation in order to save us is to me one of the most moving proofs of his love for us.

Lessons on Humiliation

One of the ways in which Christ’s emotional suffering is instructive to us is in the warning and the encouragement it can give us. Perhaps the next time you are tempted to abuse or debase someone, you might remember how Jesus was mocked. To intentionally humiliate another person is to demean them, to diminish their humanity. Think about the effect of cruel taunts, course jokes, racist or sexist remarks—all different forms of verbal abuse. This is the speech of hatred.

Those who hurled such abuse at our Lord added to his suffering just as surely as those who passed the death sentence or drove in the spikes. We may be appalled at the thought of mocking the Son of God as the soldiers and the crowd did, but do we ever mock others who are also children of God? Make no mistake: the Lord will judge all such sin severely. Isaiah writes, “He who vindicates me is near. . . . Who is my adversary?” (v. 8). Jesus did not allow the shame to deter him from completing his mission; he set his face like a flint to obey God, no matter what anyone said or did to him (cf. Hebrews 12:2-3). His example of patience and even forgiveness is left to us as a model to follow ourselves (1 Peter 2:21ff.), in the sure confidence that God is our final judge, and he will vindicate all who trust in him.

One more point to remember about the humiliation of Christ. In a very real sense, all the taunts, all the mockery and the abuse that he experienced was Satanic. The devil himself is the true Accuser, the Ultimate Insulter of people. All taunts and mockery are really a preview of the role that the devil wants to play at the last judgment: to point the finger, to bring every one of our shortcomings and failures and embarrassments to light. Not the innocent things for which we are so often humiliated, like our size or our appearance. No. Satan wants to bring up the really embarrassing things, the shocking and dirty things, the humiliating secrets we hide deep down to keep them even from those closest to us.

But he won’t be able to do it. Our Lord has not only paid for our sins; he has also borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Who can lay any charge against God’s elect? (v.8; cf. Romans 8:33), cries the apostle.

Or listen to the prophet once more. “Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? . . . . Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (vv. 9-10). Because Christ has undergone humiliation for our sake, we will never be put to shame. Praise God for that!