Servant Songs: The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all - March 13, 2016

The audio and the full text of the sermon are below. There are also questions for reflection at the bottom. Feel free to discuss on our sermon discussion group on Facebook.

This is part five in a five part series on The Servant Songs.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NRSV)

13 See, my servant shall prosper;
    he shall be exalted and lifted up,
    and shall be very high.
14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him
    —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of mortals—
15 so he shall startle many nations;
    kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
    and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
53 Who has believed what we have heard?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
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,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
    and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
    he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11     Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
    The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.


Scholars have disagreed about the interpretation and application of the fourth servant song for as long as we have been reading it. This does not mean that we cannot understand what it says, but it does mean that we cannot claim to fully grasp everything that this servant song means.

As we’ve moved through the servants songs, we’ve concluded that they do, in fact, point to Jesus. This becomes even more pronounced in this fourth servant song. If it does point to Jesus, we shouldn’t be surprised that no matter what we say about this servant song, it will never be enough to describe the reality of God in Christ, nor will it ever be exact. Jesus is like that. Jesus is greater than any description we can apply to him. We will say one thing about him, make some conclusion about him, and we automatically leave something else out.

This is even more true when we confront the mystery of his suffering, death and resurrection and the mix of human and divine elements in it. Did he die at the hands of sinful human beings? Was he betrayed? Was he put on trial and did powerful people see to it that an angry mob was mobilized against him? Yes. But wasn’t it also God’s plan for Jesus to die? Yes. Did Jesus suffer in solidarity with all suffering ones, all victims? Yes. Did Jesus die to save us from sin? Yes. Was he an example to us in his willingness to go to the cross? Yes. Did he do what no one else could do on the cross? Yes. Did he die in our place taking the punishment for all sin upon himself, so that we would not need to bear the punishment for that sin? Yes. Did he die in order to defeat death by being raised on the third day? Yes. Are we supposed to die and rise with Christ? Die to an old life of sin and be raised to a new life of righteousness? Yes. 

And we could go on.

Interpretive problems and problems of applying scripture never means we should avoid that scripture, or say it is too hard to understand and simply gloss over it. Nor should we simply decide for ourselves individually “what I think it means,” and ignore other possible interpretations. Instead, we need to lean in and learn from the multiplicity of meaning. 

I feel like when we have a text, like we do here, that resists easy interpretation, we are in some ways closer to God—because God resists easy interpretation. Whenever we might think we’ve got God figured out, that is perhaps when we are in trouble. God is bigger than our understanding.

The word we search for as we look at a text like this is the word “awe”—or what would have in the King James Version be translated as “fear.” We may very well be afraid as we interpret and apply this text, because we may be off base—we may be wrong about it. But the greater fear may be that what we find in this text is true. That the servant suffered terribly and his suffering was simultaneously at least three things: 1) our fault—we are guilty. 2) to release us from our guilt. 3) God’s divine plan.  

The interpretive problems are compounded by translation issues.

13 See, my servant shall prosper;
    he shall be exalted and lifted up,
    and shall be very high.

NIV (and most others) “my servant will act wisely”
New English Translation  “my servant will succeed” and this sis perhaps closest to the intent of the Hebrew, which conveys that the servant will not fail in his mission.

Prospering is not about monetary wealth - it is about accomplishment, and here it is about accomplishment of the salvation mission.

“Exalted and lifted up” is a phrase that only appears 4 times in the Hebrew Bible—all in Isaiah. The other three times, it always refers to God. Here, it refers to the servant.
In John’s gospel, “lifted up” gets a double meaning. Jesus is lifted into the place of worship and praise and glory. But John’s gospel points to the cross itself as the place of Christ’s glorification. He is literally lifted up on the cross. What looks like shame and suffering to the world is actually the beginning of his exaltation, which will culminate in his resurrection.

52:14-53:3

This opening section sets up the reaction to the suffering servant. People are astonished by him. What are the astonished by?

“So marred was his appearance” - this is difficult to interpret accurately. Is this really saying that he is so disfigured in his suffering that he was unrecognizable? Probably not. What is more likely, is that this means that he undergoes full suffering—bodily, mentally, and spiritually, and to see that is truly terrible. What he went through is inhuman, or sub-human.

He shall startle many nations and kings will shut their mouths (or be speechless), because who has ever heard of a messiah who suffers? Who would ever believe that this is the way the arm of the Lord (the means of salvation) would be revealed? 

53:2 talks about him being a young plant or root growing up out of dry ground. This is like saying he came out of nowhere. He wasn’t like a solid oak tree whose growth and roots are obvious, nor had he been cultivated by the establishment to be the leader. He just sprang up from a totally unexpected place.  His earthly origins are Nazareth in backwater Galilee, even though his true origin is a heavenly one.

There was also nothing external about him that would draw anyone in. He was the opposite of what great people are supposed to be like.

John Oswalt puts it like this:
“A baby born in the back-stable of a village in. This would shake the Roman Empire? A man quietly coming to the great preacher of the day and asking to be baptized. This is the advent of the man who would be heralded as the Savior of the world? No, this is not what we think the arm of the Lord should look like. We were expecting a costumed drum major to lead our triumphal parade. Our eyes are caught and satisfied by superficial spledor. This man, says Isaiah, will have none of that. As a result, our eyes flicker across him in a crowd and we do not even see him. His splendor is not on the surface, and those who have no inclination to look beyond the surface will never even see him, much less pay him any attention.” 

53:4 shifts.
We’ve already seen that the servant suffers and we’ve known that this suffering is somehow connected to our salvation. We’ve acknowledged that this is unexpected. Normally a saviour, a messiah, would lead from a place of power. This is a suffering servant messiah —three words that shouldn’t really go together. 

Beginning at 53:4, we learn that he does not simply suffering alongside us, but his suffering is both because of us and for us.

“He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;”

If we knew nothing else about the rest of the servant song or about Jesus, this could easily mean that he has suffered in the same way we have - same sicknesses. But as we read on, we find that it is far more than that.

Verse 4 actually displays the conventional wisdom of the time. When someone suffered, the ancients believed it was because of something that they had done. They believed that if you were sick, then it was because of some sin in your past, or maybe in your parents’ past.

We see this spelled out quite clearly in the book of Job. We find it as well when a blind man received his sight from Jesus in the gospel of John and the question asked with reference to his blindness is “who sinned that he was born blind? Is it him or his parents?”
This way of thinking seems abhorrent to us today, but it explains a casual reading of Isaiah

53:4 - “we accounted him struck down by God, and afflicted.” We can still have this attitude today. If you know nothing about someone who is given the death sentence, it is natural to think—they must have done something terrible. Jesus was given the death sentence. He must therefore be God-forsaken. If you know nothing else about him except that he was crucified, your assumption would be that he was tortured and executed for his sins.

But, verse five says “But he was wounded for OUR transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;”

He did not suffer for anything he had done. He suffered for our sins. He died for what we had done. He died in our place, instead of us. 

We might ask all kinds of questions about this. Why does anyone have to suffer or die for anyone’s sin? The answer is justice, or simply, what is right.

What should we do with a person who takes someone’s life? What would be right? What would be fair? What should we do with someone like Hitler? What would be the right thing? What should we do with someone who preys upon children? What would be just? 
Should there be some kind of punishment? What about repeat offenders who never learn their lesson? How many chances should we give? What would be fair?

Then, what do we do with smaller things? Something like theft, for instance?
Now, what should we do with something like covetousness? And what about that commandment about honouring our parents? Are people doing that perfectly? And what should we do with the first commandment asking us to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength? Each time we don’t do that, each time we ignore God, each time we put Him on the back burner - what do we do with that situation? 

What do we do with any sin? What would be right? What would be just? 

Then we have question about what do we in fact deserve? We might want to say, I’m a good person - I deserve a good life, with good things. Is that really true? What’s your measurement for that?

How about we choose just the fourth of the ten commandments as our measure of how well we’re doing. “Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy.”
The thing is, we have a measure, and we fall hopelessly short of it. You can say the measure is the law, but you can also say that the measure is righteousness. None of us are righteous. Are we really going to talk about what we deserve for the kind of lives we live? If we go down that road we need to ask the very scary question of whether we are living the life that God has envisioned for us? It is the amazing grace of God that he doesn’t give us what would actually be fair.

And the reason he doesn’t is because he loves us. God deals in grace, but he also deals in absolutely perfect righteousness, perfect fairness, perfect justice.

In the servant God’s perfect justice and perfect grace are satisfied. It is by his perfect grace that the servant stands in our place to receive the full consequences of our sin.

“Upon him was the punishment that made us whole and by his bruises we are healed.”
Jesus suffered and died in our place and in doing so he set us right with God. The punishment that should have rested on us, instead went to him, which means that we start over with God. We are seen to be righteous because of this exchange, even though we are not. 

Verse 6 summarizes this by saying that we are just like sheep. We easily go astray, distracted so easily by the next patch of yummy grass. We’ve gone off on our own, paying no heed to the shepherd. This is offensive to God. This is the fundamental root of sin. We’ve turned away from God, gone astray, gone our own way and not God’s way. This is the heart of the matter - this is our iniquity. But the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Verse 7 says that the servant was like a sheep too, but not in the wandering off sense. He was like a lamb to be sacrificed, and he didn’t say a word to stop it. He let himself be killed for us.

Verse 8 says that he was taken away by a perversion of justice. But didn’t I just say it was to satisfy God’s justice? This is the amazing way God works. Jesus’ trial, suffering and death was a terrible thing. As we read the story in Holy Week coming up, we hear a very human story - a story that is full of human sin. Of the failure of religion and politics. A story of a human justice system being twisted because people were afraid. What is amazing about how God works is that while the human side of the equation was full of sin, evil and injustice, this was the very way that God’s justice was done. 

This is what is amazing about this servant song. Everything is so unexpected. Jesus is the only one to have ever lived completely without sin, yet he was sentenced to death. It was a perversion of human justice. Yet it was also God’s gracious plan to satisfy divine justice.
Because this is the story, we get these lines “who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living…”

“It was a perversion of justice” yet, in verse 10 “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.”

This sounds terrible. It is what some biblical scholars have called divine child abuse. 
But what those scholars miss is that, while Jesus is the servant, and Jesus is the messiah, and Jesus is the son, Jesus is, in the end, God himself. God’s purposes are accomplished by God putting himself in the place of suffering and death for our sakes. His grace is on display because in this self-offering, we see how profound our sin is and how much God loves us anyway.


For Reflection

1) How do you respond to the following statement? Is it encouraging, overwhelming, challenging ?
Interpretive problems and problems of applying scripture never means we should avoid that scripture, or say it is too hard to understand and simply gloss over it. Nor should we simply decide for ourselves individually “what I think it means,” and ignore other possible interpretations. Instead, we need to lean in and learn from the multiplicity of meaning. 
I feel like when we have a text, like we do here, that resists easy interpretation, we are in some ways closer to God—because God resists easy interpretation. Whenever we might think we’ve got God figured out, that is perhaps when we are in trouble. God is bigger than our understanding.

2) What is “sin” according to the Bible? Do you agree that we all fall short and that no one is righteous?

3) How would you describe the consequences of sin in human terms (between people only)? How about in divine terms (between God and people)?  What happens as a result of sin?

4) We are like sheep that have gone astray—we turn away from God. Why is this offensive to God? Why is all sin offensive to God?

5) When we have been wronged, typical human behaviour is to demand justice. When we are the offender, how strong is the desire/need for forgiveness? Are these demands/desires different from person to person?  Why might this be the case? How does Jesus's death and resurrection "satisfy" both of these needs?

6) Here is are three definitions for the word “atonement” (dictionary.com)
a. satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.
b. In theology. the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, especially as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ.
c.  reconciliation; agreement.

This servant song deals with the doctrine (or understanding) of atonement. In what ways is this doctrine portrayed in the servant song? How else might this doctrine be understood?


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Servant Songs: The Lord God Helps Me - March 6, 2016

The audio and the some sermon notes are below. This week, there is not a full manuscript - just the notes on which the sermon was based. It is worth listening to the audio to get the full idea of the sermon.

There are also questions for reflection at the bottom. Feel free to discuss on our sermon discussion group on Facebook.

This is part four in a five part series on The Servant Songs.

Isaiah 50: 4-9 (NRSV)

4 The Lord God has given me
   the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
   the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
   wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught. 
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
   and I was not rebellious,
   I did not turn backwards. 
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
   and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
   from insult and spitting. 

7 The Lord God helps me;
   therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
   and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 
8   he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
   Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
   Let them confront me. 
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
   who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
   the moth will eat them up. 


Sermon Notes  (these are in very rough point form)

There are two things to notice in this servant song. First, the word servant doesn’t appear in the song itself (v. 4-9)—“servant” is not mentioned until verse 10. 4-9 is clearly about the servant, though.

God is called the Lord GOD only in this Servant Song (and God’s called that 4 times)

God is in charge - this is the basic meaning of the word “lord.”
God’s got a plan! It is God’s choice. This is what God’s sovereignty is about. God chooses. God is the primary agent. God is not reactionary.

“Tongue of the learned”
Confirms 49:2 - Servant’s mouth is like a sword.  
The servant brings a particular message, a word, a proclamation.
“Learned” appears 2 other times in Isaiah (8:16, 54:13) - both times it is about disciples who learn from their intimate association with a master. The servant is “learned” - the Sovereign Lord is the master.  
This isn’t to say Jesus isn’t God. Rather this is to say that Jesus knows what God knows. The servant’s message is God’s message, the way a fully trained disciple can fully represent his master.

“That I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
A glimpse into Christ’s mission. 

How are you doing?
Tired.
Busy.

Let us reclaim the word that Christ brings, because it is a word that is given to sustain the weary.

KJV: “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary”

“A word in season.” = “The perfect word” to the one who is weary.  Sustain is not in there. Sustain makes it sound like, by Christ’s word you’ll be able to get through a busy season, or you’ll be able to just about survive. He’ll keep you going.
But this isn’t quite right. It is that Christ can supply just the right word, just the right message, just the right hope, when you are weary. 

See Matt 11:28-29
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’

The servant hears from the Lord every morning.
Franz Delitzsch (mid to late 1800s) points out that this is about how the servant receives prophetic inspiration. Not always through visions, dreams, but daily. In the grind. 
John Oswalt points out that the servant can speak with a learned tongue because he had listened with a disciple’s ear.

Verse 5 builds on this…
“The Lord God has opened my ear,

Jesus is perfectly obedient to God’s word.
“And I was not rebellious.”

Who else can claim this but Christ?  John 8:29 - And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’


The hints pointing toward the 4th servant song

The servant’s primary mission is a salvation mission, somehow accomplished by his suffering and death.

Important point here - obedience

Servant is resolute because he has received God’s help.
“Therefore I have set my face like flint”
Luke 9:51 - “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Court room imagery.
This servant can’t be stopped.
The plan is going to work. It is assured.  Nothing and no one can stop the salvation plan, because God is at the heart of it.

We are to emulate the servant.
See verse 10  -the verse after the Servant Song.
Who among you fears the Lord
   and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
   and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
   and relies upon his God?

Christ is the way of our salvation.
Christ is also our ultimate example.

Overview of what we learn about the servant in this Servant Song.
God is sovereign - We are not.
Learner/Disciple - intimate knowledge
Message for the weary
Learning/listening daily - how? Prayer/Psalms.  scripture, community, experience, tradition.
For Others (the hard thing - suffering)
Steadfast - can’t be stopped.


Questions for Reflection

1) What does it mean to say God to be Sovereign and I am not? What are the barriers to you living this out? What does it look like when you live this out successfully?

2) A disciple is someone who knows the master intimately. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, Jesus said we are to be one with him. How does this effect your understanding of being a disciple of Jesus? What does this mean for living out your own discipleship on a daily basis?

3) Jesus's invitation to follow him is an invitation to "take on his yoke" and be a servant.   Is that his not an odd way to get followers? How does this invitation compare to other "invitations" we receive during our lives ( invitations to be rich, successful,  popular, etc) Why did Jesus' message appeal to his followers then? Why does it still appeal to us today ?

4) What are the barrier to us hearing “a word in season for the weary”? How can we hear that word?

5) The servant listened and was given a mission. He was resolute in that mission. How might God be sending you in mission? How can you/we stay resolute?


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Servant Songs: Jesus as a light to the nations - February 28, 2016

The audio and the full text of the sermon are below. There are also questions for reflection at the bottom. Feel free to discuss on our sermon discussion group on Facebook.

This is part three in a five part series on The Servant Songs.

Isaiah 49: 1-13 (NRSV)

1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
   pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
   while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
   in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
   in his quiver he hid me away. 
3 And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
   Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ 
4 But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain,
   I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
   and my reward with my God.’ 

5 And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength— 
6 he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ 

7 Thus says the Lord,
   the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
   the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
   princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
   the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’ 

8 Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favour I have answered you,
   on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
   as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
   to apportion the desolate heritages; 
9 saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’,
   to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
They shall feed along the ways,
   on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; 
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
   neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
   and by springs of water will guide them. 
11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
   and my highways shall be raised up. 
12 Lo, these shall come from far away,
   and lo, these from the north and from the west,
   and these from the land of Syene. 

13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
   break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
   and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 


We have spent a fair amount of time on the identity of the servant. It should be clear by now that my own bias is to read the character of the servant as both representing Israel and as finding its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. My belief is that when these words were first prophesied, the prophet was not thinking of the future historical Messiah, but rather of an ideal Israel, an Israel that only God could bring about.

As a Christian, I believe God brought about that ideal Israel, not as a small chosen nation, but in the person of His Son. For those who know Jesus and his story, we can’t help but see his likeness when we read the Servant Songs. Isaiah 49:1-13 is full of imagery that will bring up thoughts of our Savior and Lord. Rather than spend more time on the identity question, I’d like us to consider leaning in to how these verses illuminate Jesus for us.

There is one problem in that regard with respect to this Servant Song, however—and that’s verse three. In verse three the servant is clearly identified as Israel, and this is difficult to avoid. Is it Israel, or is it Jesus? John Oswalt, in his commentary on Isaiah looks at this issue in a helpful and creative way. According to Oswalt, there are two slightly different ways to read verse three where God speaks to the servant.

1. “You are my servant named Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
2. “You are my servant, my Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Do you see the difference in the second one? In the second version, God is being emphatic as he addresses the Messiah. He says to a specific person (to Jesus), “you are my servant, you are my Israel.” Think about that for a moment. God says to the servant—“you are my Israel.” The servant, Jesus, stands in the place of the true chosen people. 

There are such connections here for those who follow Christ. Those who are in Christ, those who are members of His body, share in this. The Church, Christ’s people, become the new Israel. We do not fulfill what Christ fulfills, we are not the perfect servant any more than Israel is, except that we have united ourselves to Christ. In Christ, we share in his sufferings and in his exaltation. Christ is the ideal Israel, and the Church which is in Him, is the redeemed people of God, the new Israel. We do not replace Israel of our own accord, but stand in that place because of our union with the servant, our union with whom God has claimed as “his true Israel,” Jesus Christ.

Let’s turn to this particular servant song and see what we can learn about Jesus.

“Listen to me, O coastlands, 
pay attention, you peoples from far away!”

This servant song is not addressed to the Jewish nation. It is addressed to the people from far away. It is addressed to Gentiles. This is significant, because while we naturally claim that the gospel is for everyone, in practice we don’t always behave as though it is. We might wish to think about who we consider “far away” from God and remember that these words are first and foremost for them. 

"The Lord called me before I was born,
   while I was in my mother’s womb he named me."

The servant is the one speaking these words, through the mouth of the prophet, across centuries, through the lens of Christ. It is quite remarkable. 

It was not unusual in the ancient world for great leaders to have been spoken of as being chosen before they were even born. It is also not unusual for such leaders to have divinely attributed names. What is striking is how readily these words apply to Jesus of Nazareth, who, though from a royal line if you go back far enough, was essentially a nobody by earthly standard at his birth. 

An angel told both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Mt 1:21) to name their yet unborn child Jesus. The gospels point to Jesus’ salvation mission being given before his birth. 

"2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
   in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
   in his quiver he hid me away."

Rev. 19:15 “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”
The sword coming out of the mouth is a strange image. It means that the servant won’t fight with an actual sword, but that his weapon will be his word that he speaks. This is the same for the Church and believers in the Ephesians passage about the armour of God.
Eph 6:17  “Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” In John’s gospel, not only is is the word Jesus speaks that has power, but Jesus is himself identified as the living Word made flesh.

The servant is also identified as a polished arrow. The sword is his mouth, or his spoken word. He himself is an arrow. This points to the fact that God will use the servant in a fight. While the expectation may have been a fight against earthly rulers or enemies, in Jesus we find that the fight is with greater powers than that, and the scope of salvation is much larger as well.

The sword and arrow are hidden. They are hidden until the proper time. God is not firing arrows all over the place or flailing with his sword. He has them ready for the opportune moment. Jesus is the one who appears at the right time, almost as if from nowhere, as though he’s been hidden, to strike the fatal blow against evil.

"3 And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
   Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’"

We have already looked at the idea that God declares Jesus to be the ideal Israel. The last part of this phrase is important: “in whom I will be glorified.” Everything about Jesus will bring glory to God the Father.

"4 But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain,
   I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
   and my reward with my God.’"

This speaks directly to the idea of God being glorified, or honoured by the servant. These verses, at first glance, are surprisingly negative. Why would Jesus say this? This points to the apparent futility of Jesus’ ministry in light of his death. This phrase paints a picture of Christ on the cross when He cried “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This phrase shows us the humanity of Christ as he suffered and died. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, it all seems pointless, all hope seems lost. God’s glory is not on display on these days.

The season of Lent is like this as well. We reflect on our mortality, we are reminded of our sin and our need for repentance, we connect with a Saviour who entered our suffering. Without the resurrection, it would all be in vain, but rest assured—new life is coming.
This is played out in our baptism as well.

Christ is united to us in our suffering and as we are baptized into his body, we suffer and die with him. This ought not be minimized. Do our lives have any meaning? Is it worth it to follow Jesus if it leads to the cross? Should we unite ourselves to him if it means suffering and death? If it means humiliation or ridicule? 

It can seem freeing to think about entering the waters of baptism to die to an old way of life, but we cannot rush the new life on the other side. We must acknowledge that the death is real, that the loss must happen, and in the time of loss, it may very well feel pointless. At the bottom of the baptismal waters we drown, and for what? Has anything changed? Did I accomplish anything by uniting to Christ? Maybe I should have just kept going at life on my own.

The answer to these questions is not simply “resurrection,” but “trust in God for resurrection.” What we do in baptism, in uniting ourselves to Jesus, is dying with him and trusting God for what’s next.

Notice the rest of the verse. The servant doesn’t claim new life after his life is spent. Rather, he says “surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” He simply aligns himself with God, and hopes in him. This is what Jesus did, and what we need to do.

"5 And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength—"

Verse 5 is a very fast summary. “And now the Lord says…” We will get to what God is going to say in a moment, but first, let’s build this up… get ready.

Remember, life, work, ministry had felt futile, everything had felt like defeat, but the servant is trusting in God. “And now the Lord says…”

The Lord who formed me in the womb to be his servant—so this life and even death can’t be futile.

"…Who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob/Israel back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength."

You have to hear these words being said. There is no other way with these words. They can’t be just read, they demand to be proclaimed by a great preacher. They must be put in the mouth of Jesus and heard by our ears. There is a building to these words and the contrast they being to built from the previous verse.

God is about to speak into what felt like futility, death, insignificance. There is the servant, this Jesus, crucified, defeated, dead in a tomb, gone. But God is about to speak. 
The God who formed Jesus in the womb to be his true servant. The God who formed Jesus to bring his people Israel back to him.

We must hear Jesus saying these words, in the moment when the stone of the tomb is rolled away and he is risen.

"And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength—
6 he says,"

Let’s pause there for a moment—“he says.” Go back and think about the build up of the previous section. Make sure you have that build up. Everything seems lost until the stone is rolled away and the servant emerges.

"Then God says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ "

All in vain? No! God’s salvation obliterates any thought of Jesus’ life being futile. He is a light so that God’s salvation may reach the end of the earth. We tend to be so small in our thinking. We don’t simply unite ourselves to Jesus so we can feel better, or overcome an old life for ourselves, and get one that is a bit better than before. We don’t united to Jesus to make progress in our spiritual life.

When we unite to Jesus, we are uniting to a global salvation mission. When we unite to Jesus we are one with the One. 

At the darkest moment, when all seemed lost, God speaks about how this has all been done according to his plan so that the entire world may know his salvation. 

"7 Thus says the Lord,
   the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
   the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
   princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
   the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’" 

Here the servant is identified as deeply despised and abhorred by the nations. It is easy to become confused about the use of the word “nations,” because sometimes it can mean “Gentiles,” as in other nations that are not Israel, and sometimes it can imply mean “people,” or “the masses of people,” or more simply “the mob.”
This is what happens to Jesus. He is despised by the mob. At the end of his life there were very few followers who stood by his side.
But in this verse is the promise of radical reversal. The rejected one will be the one who is in the end honoured even by the greatest rulers.

8 Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favour I have answered you,
   on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
   as a covenant to the people,

God continues to speak to the servant of the promise of salvation. The servant has been given as a covenant to the people, to all people. Covenant is a promise that binds two or more parties to one another. The primary covenant between God and Israel was that he would be their God and they would be his people. They would remain faithful to one another. This basic understanding of covenant is why so often the relationship between God and his people is describe in terms of a marriage. Even one of the images for the church is the Bride of Christ. 

God says to the servant “I have given you as a covenant.” He doesn’t say, “to fulfill the covenant,” or “to teach about a new covenant,” or “to get the people to renew their covenant,” but “as a covenant.”

Jesus is the covenant itself, much like the law was considered the substance of the covenant. The law described how to remain faithful in covenant with God. Jesus does more than this. Jesus makes us as though we are faithful even when we are not always faithful. Jesus makes us righteous, makes us right with God. Jesus is the glue of the relationship between us and God. He is the covenant that binds us with God. To be in Christ is to be in faithful covenant relationship with God.

The rest of the Servant Song plays out the results of Jesus being given as the true servant. Listen to the freedom given, the imagery of new life and new possibility. God’s promise to use goes beyond simply saving us—His promise extends to what life is like for us after we let him pull us out of our darkness.

"I have kept you and given you
   as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
   to apportion the desolate heritages; 
9 saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’,
   to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
They shall feed along the ways,
   on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; 
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
   neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
   and by springs of water will guide them. 
11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
   and my highways shall be raised up. 
12 Lo, these shall come from far away,
   and lo, these from the north and from the west,
   and these from the land of Syene. 
13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
   break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
   and will have compassion on his suffering ones. "

The significance of this cannot be overstated. There is a return in the final two verses to those who are far off, and how they are invited to come close. God, through his servant, will deliver comfort to his people. His compassion is on those who suffer.

Who is it who is far off? Who is it that needs words of hope and promise that God is compassionate and gracious? (Perhaps you can think about inviting them to hear about the hope and compassion God offers in Jesus. Invite them to come here on Easter Sunday. What better day than to hear about the grace of God) 

You may not know who is truly far off and suffering. So, even if you suspect, invite anyway. In Christ, the end of suffering is promised. His resurrection promises a final victory over every evil power that opposes God and his rule of justice and love. Think of what this message may mean for someone who is stumbling in darkness unaware of the beautiful light of the servant Christ.

Pay attention, people from far away. Pay attention, for there is good news.

Questions for Reflection

1) What do you think it means for God to call the servant “my Israel”? What does it mean for God to declare Jesus to be the “true Israel”?

2) How do you understand verse 2 where the servant is identified with hidden weapons?

3) Verse 4 states: “But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.’” How do you understand this in with respect to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection?

4) What do you make of the contrast between global salvation through the servant, and the servant’s description of his labour being for nothing? Does this have any impact on how you see your own life as a follower of Christ?

5) “When we unite to Jesus, we are uniting to a global salvation mission.” How do you understand this statement? What does this statement mean for our behaviour as Christ followers?

6) This Servant Song is addressed to people who are far away. Who do you know who are far away from God? How might that person respond if they had the opportunity and were willing to listen to the words of this Servant Song?


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The Servant Songs - The Servant King - February 21, 2016

The audio and the full text of the sermon are below. There are also questions for reflection at the bottom. Feel free to discuss on our sermon discussion group on Facebook.

This is part two in a five part series on The Servant Songs.

Isaiah 42:1-6

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations. 
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street; 
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice. 
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 

5 Thus says God, the Lord,
   who created the heavens and stretched them out,
   who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
   and spirit to those who walk in it: 
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations, 
7   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness. 
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
   my glory I give to no other,
   nor my praise to idols. 
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
   and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
   I tell you of them. 


In 1922, Bernhard Duhm identified the Servant Songs in Isaiah in a particular way. His theory was that someone other than the prophet, and indeed other than the author of second Isaiah, if there are multiple authors of the book, wrote the Servant Songs, and an editor inserted them into the book.

This was really at the heart of Duhm’s identification of the Servant Songs. He contended that the character of the songs was different from much of what is found in second Isaiah. Declaring that they have a different author allows us to pull the songs out of Isaiah and interpret them without reference to the rest of the text.
I don’t think we should do this, though. Even if Duhm is correct about the authorship of the Servant Songs, which is seriously disputed, someone did weave them into a particular text, and communities have accepted these as the prophets words, and in fact, God’s word, for centuries. All of this is to say that the context of the Servant Songs is important.

Isaiah 42 is not the first use of the imagery of “servant” in Isaiah. In First Isaiah (ch. 1-39), the word is always used to refer to either someone specific (e.g. Isaiah 20:3 “…Just as my servant Isaiah has walked…”), or to servants in general  (e.g. Isaiah 37 “When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah…”).

In Second Isaiah we get the first instance of Israel being identified as the servant. This happens in Isaiah 41:8-9, one chapter before the first “Servant Song”:
“But you, Israel, my servant,
   Jacob, whom I have chosen,
   the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
   and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, ‘You are my servant,
   I have chosen you and not cast you off ’;”
The motif of Israel/Jacob being the servant continues strongly throughout much of Second Isaiah. Servant is used exclusively to refer to Israel/Jacob from Isaiah 44 to 48.

It would seem that at least when it comes to the first Servant Song, we need to ask whether it may in fact be about Israel. This is our first question, because the context of second Isaiah demands it.

Second Isaiah is addressed to those Israelites who are in exile from their homeland in Babylon. It begins at chapter 40 with a powerful image of a highway being made by God through the wilderness: the promise of a straight road to lead the exiles home. Chapter 41 assures the people that they are cared for by God. They are collectively his chosen servant, and God will strengthen them.

Isaiah 42, uses the same language to talk about the servant as is found in Isaiah 41. The servant is a chosen one. This was about Israel in chapter 41. Can it still be about Israel?

V. 1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit on him he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  This can only be about Israel if we see the servant as a personification of the nation, and if we believe that God’s intention was to bring justice to the earth through his chosen people. There is in fact strong evidence in the Old Testament to support that the very reason God had a chosen people was a bless and to bring about justice or righteousness to the world, through them.
As you read through the other verses in the servant song, you will find that the words can be applied to Israel. 

V. 2 “He will not cry or lift up his voice…” This is in reference to the way God’s people would bring about justice: not through mighty declarations or speeches, but quietly, presumably through faithful actions.

V. 3 “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” 

A bruised reed and a dimly burning wick refer to those who are weak. This is saying that God’s chosen people will not bring forth justice by trampling on the weak. God’s justice will come not through the oppression of people. We could continue and draw out how this may refer to Israel, but we should know that this text is not to be seen as referring to what Israel did, but rather the hope of who Israel could be.

You may not quite be with me in thinking that the first servant song refers to Israel. Perhaps you’ve been taught that all four of the songs must be about Jesus. We’re coming to that, I promise.

But first, we need to know something about the Greek translation of the Old Testament. One of the earliest translations of the Old Testament took place over the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE. This version of the Old Testament, along with some other books that are not part of Scripture, is called the Septuagint.

The Septuagint is what most of the New Testament writers used when they were quoting from the Old Testament, because it was in Greek. Most of the New Testament writers would have also known Hebrew and would have been familiar with the Hebrew text. Translations are problematic because meaning can be lost or slightly changed. The Septuagint is problematic in an even greater way because it was likely translated from a variant, or several variants of the Hebrew Bible. This means that the Septuagint may not have been translated from exactly the same version which became the authoritative Hebrew version of the Scriptures passed down by the Scribes.

So, there are sometimes fairly large discrepancies between the Greek version of the Old Testament and the Hebrew version of the Old Testament. Some worry about these discrepancies, but they can give us insight into how the ancients were interpreting texts. We can get insight into how they understood a text based on the choices they made in translation.

Isaiah 42 has a discrepancy. The Septuagint opens like this: “Jacob is my servant; I will uphold him. Israel is my chosen, my soul has accepted him. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth judgment to the nations.”

Clearly, someone at some point, very early in the interpretation of Isaiah, wished to identify the servant of Isaiah 42, as Israel - just like in the surrounding chapters. An argument can be made that the basic understanding before Christ was that this text was talking about Israel.

Enter the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew quotes from the Old Testament more than any of the other gospels. There are quotes all over the place - and no single book is quoted more than the book of Isaiah. The longest quote in Matthew is found at Matthew 12:15-21, just as Matthew is reaching the mid-way point of his story.

What does he quote? The first four verses of the first Servant Song: Isaiah 42:1-4.
Matthew usually quotes from the Septuagint. But this time he doesn’t seem to. Matthew goes back to the original text, removing any hint of this being about Israel. Why? Because Matthew applies the text to Jesus.

Did Matthew not know that the basic interpretation of this Servant Song was that it was talking about Israel? He knew, but Matthew was doing something magnificent. Matthew was saying that Israel being the chosen servant, establishing justice for all peoples, and doing it faithfully without trampling on the already downtrodden - Matthew was saying that all of that - is fulfilled in Jesus. The servant is Israel personified, yes - and that is Jesus. Jesus fulfils God’s hope for his chosen people.

Frederick Dale Bruner has an excellent commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Im going to share some of what Bruner writes about Matthew’s use of Isaiah 42:1-4.

But first, you need the context of the quote in Matthew 12. It is can be easily supplied by looking at Matthew 12:14-17. Just before this, Jesus had done a healing on the Sabbath day. Then we get this: “The Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:”

Bruner explains that there are two purposes in Matthew supplying the quote from Isaiah.
1) To give an explanation for why Jesus withdrew and why he gave a command to keep silent about his identity.

2) To give what Bruner calls a “mid-Gospel review of Jesus’ whole mission.” 
Bruner points out that withdrawal is “an unusual description of a Messiah.” “Messiahs do not ordinarily retreat, but advance. Messiahs do not seek to be hidden, but to be known.”
Christian interpreters have made a big deal about the way in which Jesus went about his mission. This is commented on widely. It isn’t just that he is Savior and Lord, Messiah and King, it is vastly important how he exercises these roles.  Matthew Henry commented “He could have secured himself by miracle but chose to do it in the ordinary way of flight and retirement.”

What is interesting to me is that Jesus was already attracting great crowds. If he had wanted to lead a political revolution, he could have. But this is not his way. The way of Jesus is not to shout about his Messiahship. He simply heals people and teaches people. When the challenge about his identity comes, he flees and commands silence. This is mysterious, because shouldn’t we shout from the rooftops that He is Lord?

The answer to this question, it seems, is no - or at least, not until we understand what it really means for Jesus to be Lord and Messiah. Jesus is Lord, Jesus is king and ruler in the sense of Isaiah’s text. He is a servant King. Jesus’ hesitation to claim his rightful title guards against our misunderstanding of who he really is. 

The piece about the bruised reeds and flickering wicks is important. Jesus is always one who pays attention to the least of these. We tend to follow powerful people who extend their power at the expense of the weak, even, sadly quite often, when they claim to be working for the weak. The Church has even done this for years and years holding so solidly to the truth that we stop caring for real people in the name of that truth. Jesus challenged the powerful, held to the truth, and never trampled on the least of these. It was as if he knew we needed to see him as servant before we proclaimed him Lord. 
Bruner puts it this way, quite beautifully, I think:

“To be sure, his failure ‘to shout and scream’ as revolutionaries and the Spirit-filled of all times are wont to do, his failure to work at the great social intersections (as contemporary revolutionary and revivalist strategies both advise), and his strange penchant for working with bruised rather than with polished reeds, with flickering rather than with glowing flames, will still turn people away from Jesus.”

Then, Bruner quotes Matthew 11:6 where Jesus says, “But blessed is the person who is not offended by me.”

Jesus is supremely interested in righteousness, in justice. He works and ultimately gives his life to put us right with God. But while he gives his own life, notice that he sacrifices no one else’s. 

Jesus is the suffering servant of God. Only when we see him as such can we readily call him Lord, can we understand that his way of ruling over us is in fact to give himself up for us. When we see this, when we place him as the head of our movement, or of our body, we are saying that our gain ought never be at the expense of someone else’s loss, except his. Our King died for the least of these, not just for us. 

We must see him as servant King.

So far, we have addressed the idea of the Isaiah text illuminating the fact that Jesus fled from a fight with his opponents and commanded his followers to keep quiet about his identity. Incidentally, Jesus stays quiet about his identity when on trial for his life as well.
We have not addressed the idea of these few verses from Isaiah providing a mid-gospel summary of Jesus’ mission. I’d like us to look at two central aspects of Jesus’ life to this point in the gospel as key for understanding his overall mission. 

The first is to be found by looking at the opening of the Servant Song: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

The word servant in Greek can also mean “child,” or possibly “son.” Knowing this, we discover that this phrase seems echoed in Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s voice declares in Matthew 3:17, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

We spoke last week about Lent being a time to reflect on the vows we make in baptism, to think about renewing our life in Christ. Here we have another connection. God chooses his servant, as God has chosen you. The servant, Christ Jesus, is declared as God’s beloved in His baptism. You too are God’s beloved child and servant. 

The second aspect of Jesus’ ministry that is pointed to here is his teaching, and specifically how his teaching is intended to go throughout the world.

In Isaiah 42:4 it is phrased like this: “and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”
This gets changed by Matthew to “And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” That’s quite different. Where does Matthew get that from? He copied it word for word from the Septuagint. Earlier he followed the original Hebrew text. Here he follows the Greek text. Why? To point us to Jesus. When we reflect on this, we find that taking the Hebrew and Greek together, we find an even greater meaning.

First, the easy one: the word “coastlands,” which can also be translated “islands.” This gets changed to “Gentiles.” The first description is geographical. The second is political or ethnic. The geographic description is meant to conjure the idea of those who are far off. The Septuagint interpreter can insert “Gentiles” here, because they are those who are politically and ethnically far off - they are those who are not part of Israel. This makes things more clear for Matthew’s purposes. He is not wanting to say that there are certain coastlands or islands that are awaiting Jesus. He wants to say that all people, even people traditionally outside of God’s covenant with Israel, are in need of Jesus.

Saying Gentiles or Nations is perhaps more accurate. Saying coastlands or islands is maybe more poetic. It is like saying - until every last nook and cranny on earth has heard the message.

The substitution of “name” for “teaching” is more difficult, however. We can’t know why the Septuagint inserted the word “name” there, but in some ways it is a blessing that it did. Looking at the Hebrew that is translated teaching, we find that it is actually the word Torah. That can be “teaching,” but it can also be “law.” 

We must also understand what is meant by the Gentiles hoping in Jesus’ name. It isn’t literally the name Jesus. It is who the name refers to. It is the person of the servant - of Jesus. What has happened here, even through translation and interpretation, is that the person of Jesus has taken the place of the law. It’s quite remarkable.

As we look on Jesus’ actual teaching, we find that while he provides excellent commands that we ought to follow, the main thrust of what we learn, is in fact about Jesus himself. He is ultimately the content of the teaching, and he is the fulfillment of the ultimate teaching, God’s teaching, the law.

This bit of Isaiah points to Jesus’ whole mission because his mission is one of connecting others to God. This was formally done through adherence to the law. Now it can be done in Christ. The new covenant is found in Christ, and is open to more than just Israel. The servant King’s mission is to the least of these, to those who are far off, to the Gentiles of the coastlands and islands.

The mission involved obeying his commands, keeping our vows, but it’s more than that. His mission is for us to be connected to him, or as Jesus puts it, to be disciples. This all comes together at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, where he sends out his closest followers. Listen to what he tells them to do, and where he commissions them to go.

Matthew 28:19-20 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

With Jesus firmly in mind, the second half of our Servant Song comes alive for us.
6bI have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations, 
7   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness. 
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
   and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
   I tell you of them. 

We should see right away that these verses can apply to both Israel and Christ. The themes of covenant and God’s chosen ones being a light to the nations are all over the Old Testament, but we believe those themes reach their climax in Jesus. Martin Luther said that Isaiah’s prophecy “paints the entire Christ.”

Here we have the great themes that weave together in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: covenant, light to the nations, healing, salvation and freedom, the old life being gone and new things being declared.

The early believers saw these connections between their scriptures and this one who had come. He did not rule as anyone else. He did not lord over people, he was a suffering servant and is our king.

Questions for Reflection

1) Martin Luther said that Isaiah’s prophecy “paints the entire Christ.” What did Luther mean by this?

2) In what ways does Jesus fulfill or complete the law? In what ways does Jesus fulfill the entire Hebrew Scriptures?

3) How do you feel about the discrepancies between the different manuscripts of the Bible? Does this challenge your faith? Does it add to it in any way?

4) How is saying “the Servant Songs are prophecies about Jesus” different from saying “the Servant Songs are to be applied to Jesus” (or “inform our understanding of Jesus”)?

5) The argument was made that Jesus commanded his followers to remain silent about him to guard against a potential misunderstanding of his true identity as servant Messiah. Does this effect how we talk about Jesus with others today? 

6) When discussing “dimly burning wicks” and “bruised reeds” the following statement was made: “The Church sometimes holds so solidly to the truth that we stop caring for real people in the name of that truth.”  What do you think this means? How do you respond?

7) If we apply the servant song to Jesus, what does it mean to say he is “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations?”

 

Source Note:

F. Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (2 volumes; revised and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 2004) 


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The Servant Songs: Who is the Servant? - Februrary 14, 2016

The audio and the full text of the sermon are below. There are also questions for reflection at the bottom. Feel free to discuss on our sermon discussion group on Facebook.

This is part one in a five part series on The Servant Songs.

Acts 8:26-39 (NRSV)
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[g] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.


Phillip is told by an angel to go to a particular road. Phillip goes. On that road there was a chariot, parked for the time being I suppose, and in the chariot was an Ethiopian official who was in charge of the royal treasury. This official, who remains nameless, had come to Jerusalem to worship God and was returning home. 

The Holy Spirit tells Phillip to go over to the chariot. Phillip goes, and hears the Ethiopian official reading out loud from Isaiah. Phillip asks, “do you understand what you’re reading?” The official answers back, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And then the official invites Phillip to join him. 

After reading a section, specifically Isaiah 53:7-8, the Ethiopian official asks Phillip whether the prophet is referring to himself or to someone else. 

The passage the Ethiopian official read is from one of the four servant songs, which are found in Isaiah 42:1-9, Isaiah 49:1-13, Isaiah 50:4-9, and Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

These four passages didn’t come to be known as the Servant Songs until Berhard Duhm identified them that way in 1922. Interestingly, they aren’t actual songs - they are simply part of the poetry of Isaiah. Duhm didn’t call them songs either. It is likely that the German word dichtung was simply mistranslated as song, rather than poem. “Servant Songs” does have a nicer ring to it, though. Duhm had some very specific theories about his Servant Poems, but ever since 1922, the great debate around these songs has echoed the Ethiopian Official’s question to Phillip, that was asked close to two millennia ago - about whom is the prophet speaking? Or, more directly - who is the servant of the Servant Songs?

In 1948, Christopher North, in his book The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah summarized about 50 years of debate, some of which predated Duhm’s theories, about the servant’s identity. North found scholars in the first half of the twentieth century to be all over the map on this question. Here is a list of who scholars claimed the servant could be (don’t worry if you don’t recognize all these names):
- Eleazar
- Zerubbabel
- Jehoiachin
- Moses
- Ezekiel
- Hezekiah
- Jeremiah
- Uzziah
- Cyrus
- Isaiah himself
- An unknown teacher of the law
- An anonymous messianic figure already born in the prophet’s time
- A personification of the collective Israel
- A personification of an ideal Israel
- A pious remnant of Israel
- A future messianic figure
- A mythological/symbolic figure
So, who is it? The Christian might want to immediate jump to identify the servant as a future messianic figure (i.e. Jesus), but remember that each of the early twentieth century scholars North cited were Christians themselves trying to solve a puzzle presented by a very ancient text.

We may also be quick to claim that Phillip gives the answer. Phillip answers the servant identity question with “Jesus” so shouldn’t we. On closer examination of the exchange between Phillip and the Ethiopian Official, we find that Phillip didn’t simply jump to Jesus. Rather, we are told that “Phillip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”

We do not know whether Phillip drew a direct correlation between the servant and Jesus. What we do know is that Phillip pointed someone who did not know the good news toward Jesus by using this text. Had the Ethiopian Official been reading a different biblical text, surely Phillip would have still pointed him to the good news about Jesus by using whichever text was at hand. This tells us less about the servant songs and more about the truth that we cling to that Scripture in its entirety points to Jesus Christ.

Whatever Phillip said to the Ethiopian Official, the Holy Spirit was at work in the man’s heart. Phillip told him the good news about Jesus and, as they drove along in the chariot, they saw some water by the side of the road. The Official stops the chariot and says “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

This is really quite remarkable. The official makes a connection between the good news that Phillip shares and his participation in the good news, and he makes that connection in an instant. The Ethiopian Official is basically saying “if what you are saying is true, then I should be baptized just like anyone else.” 

This makes a powerful statement about the good news. The good news as Phillip told it must have been focussed on the fact that anyone could be part of God’s covenant people through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had made it possible for more that the Jewish people to be in this covenant and it was a done deal. It was news, news about an event, something that God had already accomplished through Jesus. Phillip was not asking the Ethiopian Official to make a choice, or to accept Jesus into his heart. He was simply telling him that God’s grace was available to him without the requirements of adhering to law or custom. God’s grace was for him because of Jesus. Period. 

The Official’s request, no, demand for baptism, came from his joy and enthusiasm to participate in the life that God was now offering him in Christ. 
“If this is really true, then I am claiming it. Try and stop me from being baptized. There’s some water - I’m in!”

We could spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out who the servant is in the servant songs. We could try and answer the Ethiopian Official’s question. We could try and piece together exactly what Phillip said and whether he began by telling the Official that the prophet was in fact speaking of Jesus.

We could also ask a different “who” question. Who are you in this story?
Phillip and the Ethiopian are both strong characters in what is a wonderful narrative told by a master storyteller. Which one are you?

Before you answer, let’s examine the character of each very briefly.
The Ethiopian Official believes in God, he worships the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He reads from the Bible and tries to understand it. At the beginning of our story he does not yet know about Jesus, or at least, he does not know the implications of the good news. He is a seeker. He is interested in God. When he hears the good news, he is ready to receive it and it had a changing effect on him. 

Phillip acts as a mentor for the Ethiopian Official. He helps a seeker find. He explains scripture through the lens of Jesus and the gospel. Phillip proclaims the good news in a conversation. In so doing, Phillip re-affirms his own belief, his own convictions about God, and especially about Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus is to be found at the very centre of Phillip’s convictions about God.

When the Ethiopian Official is baptized there is also an effect on Phillip. He would have remembered his own baptism and had it renewed.

Are you a seeker needing to find? Or are you a mentor who also needs renewal? 

While this story is very unique in the New Testament, it’s overall theme is not. One mentors another in the gospel. This is essentially what Jesus asked his disciples to do when he commissioned them to go into all the world and make disciples of all manner of people. 
The church in the west went through a time where we shyed away from this, or perhaps felt that it was no longer needed. Institutions took care of this, culture took care of this. But mentoring others in faith is very much needed today. Every Christian at one time or another can see themselves in this story. Every believer will, at one time or another, feel very much like the Ethiopian Official - not quite understanding, but seeking, and hoping that the seeking is not hopeless. 

The hope is that every seeker and mentor will gain or regain an enthusiasm for faith - “you can’t stop me from being baptized!” The hope is also that every Christian will have opportunities to be Phillip, and share the gospel with someone who has not yet heard it. The opportunities for this are more and more frequent in our world.

The Church needs to find ways of walking alongside seekers the way Phillip walked alongside. It’s not as though the Church never did this before - we have simply forgotten. One of the most powerful ways that this is displayed is in the season of Lent.

For much of the history of the Church, people were baptized at Easter, and quite often, only at Easter. This is still true in many corners of the church. Also, for much of Christian history, those to be baptized or confirmed, if they were baptized as an infant, went through a long process of preparation. For many this process was a year, sometimes up to two years. The process was called catechesis, and those being prepared and trained where called the catechumenate, or catechumens.

The final days of preparation to be baptized would be marked by fasting, prayer and self-examination. Catechumens would ask. Am I able to take a vow renouncing evil? Am I willing to take a vow accepting Christ as Saviour and Lord? Will I, with the help of the Spirit, live a life of repentance in the home of the Church -  turning away from sin and turning toward God? These are self examination questions, and they are essential in what one promises at baptism or confirmation.

The final days of preparation coincided with the observance of Lent by the whole Church. The entire Church would be praying, fasting, and examining themselves. The entire church would be focussed on repentance - turning away from sin, and toward God. Essentially, the whole Church would be walking with the catecumenate in their final preparation before being baptized. The whole Church was being Phillip for the new seeker.

Think of the celebration when the baptisms happened at Easter. All would have their own vows renewed. All would remember their baptism and the grace that it represented. 

On Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our own mortality. Christians receive a sign of ashes to remind them that they are dust and to dust they shall return. Why do we do this? Is it to motivate us to live life well because time is short? Is it to scare us into believing? Neither of these is helpful as far as I’m concerned.

The symbol and reminder of death, however, is significant, and once again related to baptism and the overall life of discipleship in Christ. sBaptism is a sign and seal of our union with Christ, who died and then rose again. When we embrace our baptism, we are embracing that we have died to an old way of life. We leave that part of life behind in the waters of baptism, either washed away or, more apt for our purposes here, dead in the water. We come up out of the water to a new life.
The pattern of Christianity is not “live now for tomorrow we die.” It is this: “die to the old way of life and be reborn in Christ.” This is the journey through Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. We receive a sign of ash, of our death, on the Wednesday, and then celebrate as seekers come through the waters on the Sunday to new life. We are renewed in our own life in Christ as well.

This journey of self-examination, prayer and fasting is spread out over 40 days in Lent, but is also found in smaller form on the Easter weekend. On Friday we remember Christ’s death, on Saturday we wait, on Sunday we celebrate the resurrection. We don’t always love the Friday and Saturday, particularly, to my thinking, the Saturday. We tend to ignore it, but this is the very place of prayer and preparation. What will we do with Holy Saturday? That day is Lent intensified. Jesus is in the tomb and we ought to place ourselves there too, at God’s mercy. We have died and hope to witness resurrection on the Sunday.

Every year we have the opportunity for this renewal, where we can reclaim our baptism where we die and rise with Christ. Every year we check in with God to reorient our lives to him. And the Churches traditions remind us that that journey is not meant to be taken alone. The seeker needs the mentor, and in many ways, the disciple needs the seeker so that they can be reminded of the newness of life in Christ and what it really means.

The excitement of the Ethiopian Official is infectious - seasoned disciples of Jesus need more of that. Bring on those who don’t quite understand what they read if they look at the sacred scriptures, or perhaps more likely today, those who don’t quite know what or who they are seeking. We have news for them, and it is very good news.

We will spend some time using the servant songs as our jumping off point, just as Phillip did with the Ethiopian Official. There are certainly many threads to pull on in the servant songs without ever looking at the New Testament. We are however, going to take our cues from this encounter between Phillip and the Ethiopian Official. This is an occasion to engage with the good news about Jesus, not just conduct an intellectual exercise about particular poetry from Isaiah.

We must pick up on the first thread of the Holy Spirit’s activity. Phillip is prompted by an angel to go to the south road. Then he is prompted by the Holy Spirit to stand near enough the chariot to hear the scroll being read. We must listen for the Holy Spirit and also must learn to obey. Who is the Spirit telling you to stand next to? Perhaps you are to mentor them in the good news.

There are the threads of conversation, invitation and proclamation. Phillip and the Ethiopian Official have a two way conversation. Phillip doesn’t preach a sermon, but he does proclaim the good news. Most likely, you will be mentored or will mentor in conversation, but we must open ourselves to this. You may also ask yourself who in your life needs to be invited to the conversation. Who might need to hear the good news? Who is a seeker who you can talk to or even bring to Church so they can be exposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We will pull on the thread of baptism. This may be an occasion for you to renew your baptism, to be reminded of what it means and to reclaim your vows. Perhaps you have not yet been baptized and this is an occasion to consider it, or like the Ethiopian Official, to enthusiastically claim it. 
Finally, we will all hopefully claim the thread of enthusiasm. The Ethiopian Official couldn’t be stopped as he claimed the promise of baptism. I pray that if you do not have it already, that you will find enthusiasm for the good news about Jesus in your life.  That you will remember the fullness of your faith that culminates in a glorious new life in Christ.

For Reflection

1. What does it look like to be enthusiastic about the gospel?
 
2. Philip heard from an angel and was guided by the Holy Spirit. Try to imagine what Philip might have been doing (meditating? Praying? Dreaming?). Might the angel appeared in the form of a person? What can we do to hear from the Holy Spirit and to follow through on what we hear? 

3. Are there any dangers in doing what we think the Holy Spirit is telling us to do? How can we avoid the pitfalls?

4. Did Philip and the Ethiopian experience “church” on the desert road? Does the passage challenge us to think differently about what church might be?

5. The claim was made that all of Scripture points to Jesus Christ. How can this be?

6. Do you need a mentor in the gospel? Or, will you mentor someone in the gospel? What kinds of things can mentors do for seekers?

7. Read Acts 8:9-24 (Simon the Sorcerer) to get some context for the story about Philip and the Ethiopian Official. Note the contrast between the two “seekers” (Simon -- who was wowed by the signs, miracles, and power that Philip seemed to have; as opposed to the Ethiopian, who was simply studying the scriptures in humility, with no thought of power or personal gain). Think of “seekers” you know, or times when you have been a “seeker.” What role does the Bible play for “seekers”?

 

Feel free to discuss these or other questions on our sermon discussion group on Facebook.

*Special thanks to Bonnie Zimmer for help formulating some of the above questions.


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