Isaiah Reveals A Message No One Will Believe — A Good Friday Sermon on Isaiah 53:1-3
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,
A picture of Jesus recently appeared on a pizza in Brisbane, Australia. So they say. The owners of the pizza joint allege that the pizza came out of the oven with this miraculous picture of Jesus embedded in the cheese and meat. That raises the question: how did they know it was Jesus? Well, of course, everyone knows what Jesus looks like! Really? The reality is that no one knows what Jesus looks like. The New Testament doesn’t give a physical description of his appearance. Nobody drew a picture of Jesus when he lived on this earth that has survived to the present day. The reality is that every picture of Jesus is a figment of man’s imagination. Every picture of Jesus is inaccurate and mistaken. In fact, we could say that no picture of Jesus is a picture of Jesus. The only human beings who might really know what he looks like are those who are with him in heaven at this very moment.
Strangely, all the pictures that pretend to portray Jesus portray him as a handsome bearded figure. Someone who looks warm and inviting, sometimes almost feminine. He looks like he might have been in a Swedish pop band from the 1970s.
But when you read Scripture, especially when you read Isaiah, we find that these images are patently false representations of our Lord. Even apart from the issue of whether such images violate the second commandment, there is the question of whether God’s Word is taken seriously where it does speak of his appearance. On this Good Friday, we’re looking at this passage from Isaiah and it does speak about how the Saviour appeared. It’s not what you might expect about the Messiah. Many of Israel’s Kings had been handsome, striking figures. Saul was tall and good-looking. David was an attractive red-head. But Isaiah turns this all upside down. When the true King, the Messiah, comes and suffers, it’s going to be ugly.
On this Good Friday morning, we’re going to see that Isaiah reveals a message no one will believe. We’ll see that this message involves a servant who is:
- Despised and rejected
- Familiar with brokenness and suffering
Our text appears in a section of Isaiah known as the Servant Songs. The prophet is describing a figure known as the Servant of Yahweh, the Servant of the LORD. Isaiah was writing in the context of glaring unfaithfulness on the part of God’s people. Exile was in the picture – God’s chastisement for sin. God was going to discipline his people for their rebellion against him. There are dark passages of judgment scattered throughout Isaiah’s 66 chapters. Yet there are also moments where Isaiah brings hope. He speaks of redemption from sin. That’s what this Servant of Yahweh is all about. He is coming to bring salvation.
When Isaiah speaks of this servant in the first verses of chapter 53, he uses the past tense. He does this elsewhere too. It’s almost as if he’s describing someone he has already seen. At first glance, that seems to fly in the face of reading this as a description of someone coming in the future. But there is this phenomenon in the Old Testament prophets where the past tense is used to describe something or someone that is vividly seen. From Isaiah’s perspective, this revelation is so real to him that he uses the past tense. He has seen what will happen. So it is something in the past from Isaiah’s point of view, but from the point of view of his first readers, it lay in the future. And from our perspective what Isaiah describes is something past.
So, what did Isaiah see? First of all, God revealed to him that this servant would grow up before God “like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground.” This servant comes into the world as someone who will grow up. In other words, he does not appear as a fully grown adult, but as a child. He grows up before Yahweh. That means that his life was self-consciously lived before God’s face.
As a tender shoot he grew up. What is a tender shoot? This comes out of the world of trees and plants. A tender shoot is weak and vulnerable. It hasn’t developed a thick bark to protect it. This is reinforced when the servant is said to also grow up like a root out of dry ground. The dry ground is a hostile environment for a plant. For a plant to flourish and do well, it needs rich, moist top-soil. It needs a hospitable environment. This servant would grow up in an environment where things were tough.
As you know, these words were fulfilled in the life and ministry of our Saviour. These words speak of his infancy and his youth. On Good Friday we focus on the cross, but his humiliation and suffering began way before that. He began to take on our shame at the moment of his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. His downward path continued when he was born in Bethlehem. A tender shoot weak and vulnerable lay in the manger. His life could have been easily snuffed out by Herod or anyone else who wanted him dead. He came as a weak creature into a hostile environment, a world far removed from the Garden of Eden. The dry ground characterizes a broken and sinful world. He appeared here as one of us. The root would struggle to survive and grow in this context.
See already at this point, Isaiah is illustrating what he says in the first verse. In the first verse, he says, “Who has believed our message?” What he means is, “Who can believe this?” Or as John Calvin put it, the prophet is making an exclamation: “Nobody will believe these things!” Why? Because these are outrageous things to say about the Messiah. Isaiah strengthens the point by adding, “To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” That means, “Who gets it that this is the way God is going to reveal his strength to save?” This is so completely upside down that no one can believe it. God is strong, he has a mighty arm to save. How can a tender shoot or a root out of dry ground be connected with his mighty plans for redemption? This is counter-intuitive. It goes against all common sense.
The unbelievable nature of what the prophet reveals becomes more apparent with the next part of verse 2. Not only is the Servant weak, there’s also nothing attractive to him. He has no physical beauty, no majesty. No one will look at this servant and conclude, “Well, there’s a royal figure. I can definitely see him on the throne!” He had “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Rather than being a David or a Saul, the Servant of Yahweh would have nothing in his appearance that would draw people to him.
Quite the opposite really. At the end of chapter 52, Isaiah also spoke about the appearance of the Servant. People would be appalled at him because he was disfigured and “his form marred beyond any human likeness.” He would get to the point where he would be downright ugly. You know how young children sometimes ask embarrassing questions, questions like: “Mommy, why is that man so ugly?” Well, the Servant would be that man. People would turn their heads from him to avoid looking at him.
We read from Matthew 27 and there we see these words fulfilled in the sufferings of our Saviour on Good Friday. As far as physical appearance goes, he was nothing special to begin with. But after the Romans were done scourging him, he would have been gruesome to look at. He’d had the crown of thorns pressed into his head. He’d been beaten, hit in the face repeatedly till he was bruised and bleeding. He would have had his beard pulled out. If there was any way to humiliate Jesus, the Roman soldiers would have done it. They had no qualms about abusing him in the most horrific ways imaginable. That abuse would have left him a bloody pulp, scarcely recognizable as a human being. Then he was brought to Golgotha. Long spikes were driven through his wrists and legs to nail him to the cross as it lay on the ground. Then that cross would have been roughly raised up and dropped in a hole and Jesus’ body would have been jolted with the force of that action. Then he would hang there for several hours. As he hung there, he was naked. That’s another thing that pictures of Jesus on the cross always get wrong. The artists can’t handle the truth. They want to sanitize it. The reality is that Jesus hung on that cross completely naked with his entire body exposed. He didn’t have anything on and this was a dreadful sight. No beauty. No majesty. Nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. A bloody pulp of a naked man hanging on a rough wooden cross. That’s the gory reality.
No wonder that Isaiah should say, “Who can believe these things?” This is the foolishness of the cross, brothers and sisters. In Jesus’ day, the cross was a symbol of uttermost shame. To Jews, Greeks, and Romans, dying on a cross was probably one of the worst things that could happen to you. And this is the Servant of Yahweh? This is the one who would bring redemption? Who can believe this? To ears of flesh, this is impossible to believe. To blind eyes, this must be an illusion. Carnal hearts buck against it. Darkened minds think it ridiculous. Salvation through ugliness? No way.
And “despised and rejected by men”? Despised and being not esteemed? Isaiah! How much more unbelievable can you make this? Are you sure God revealed this to you? Be reasonable, man! We have had kings. Our kings were servants of Yahweh, anointed by him. Some ended up being hated. But our best kings at their best times were loved and respected. Surely, this Servant must be along those same lines.
But no. Isaiah emphasizes and insists that it’s not that way at all. This Servant of Yahweh will be treated like dirt. He will be looked upon with contempt. People would regard him as a nothing and a no one, a pariah. If they did pay any attention, they would heap insults on him, trample on his name, bully him, lie about him. He was not going to win any popularity contests.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, when Jesus ministered here on earth, he did have some popularity with the crowds. That’s true. People flocked to hear him preach, they came from near and far to be healed by him, and so on. But not all did. From the beginning of his life, he was despised by some. Herod hated him when he was a baby. And when it really mattered, at the end of his life, when he really could have used a few friends, he was left out to hang, literally. There was no one to advocate for him. There was no friend left to speak on his behalf. All people, even his closest disciples, turned their backs on him.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” Sometimes it seems true. The people around us can bring misery our way. Yet that’s not the way it was from the beginning. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. And most people would not want to be sent off to live on a desert island by themselves forever. God created us as social creatures, as people who need to have others around them to love them, to interact with them, to encourage them. But here we see God’s curse. As part of God’s attack on sin, he removes all fellowship with other human beings. Part of Jesus’ hell is his loneliness and human abandonment. Thoroughly despised and rejected, he goes to the cross alone. He hangs there utterly alone.
There was that passive despising and rejecting, but there were also more active forms. He was spit upon – which in every time and culture is one of the ultimate ways to treat someone with contempt. He was insulted and laughed at. He was mocked by the Roman soldiers and others. Here too the servant of Yahweh descended into utter shame and humiliation.
How could anybody take this man seriously at any level, let alone believe that he would be the redemption for God’s people? A servant of Yahweh has to be respected. People should be able to look up to him and love him. But what Isaiah reveals calls us to suspend disbelief. This sounds like a fantasy. Isaiah should maybe get back in the real world.
Can he sink any lower in what he says about this Servant? Yes, and he does. The Servant of Yahweh would be “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” The word translated as “sorrows” in the NIV can also be rendered as “pains.” This is a man who’s been through the ringer. He knows about suffering and disease. He’s not removed from this world. He’s truly entered into the messiness and brokenness of human existence. He’s taken it on his own shoulders and into his own being. He knows that life can be miserable.
With these words, Isaiah was again prophesying not just about the end of Christ’s life, but the whole span of it. We sometimes think that Jesus was a super-human. That he didn’t really have a human nature or that he no longer has a human nature. Neither is true. He was a true man all the thirty-three years he walked on this earth and he continues to be a true man. As a true man, he experienced many of the miseries we know. No, he never sinned. But yet he still knows what it’s like to get a lousy cold that won’t go away. He knows how much it stinks to get the flu. He knows what it’s like to lose a loved one and to see friends suffer. He wept. You can never think that he doesn’t get it. He does. He was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. He’s been there and done that and his memory isn’t short. Neither does he hold it over our heads as a sort of story-topper. “You think you have it bad? You should have seen what I went through!” He is a truly sympathetic high priest, not a jerk.
But in all this misery, sorrow, and suffering, he cuts the figure of someone antithetical to people’s expectations for a Redeemer. For the Jews then, and for many people today, the way of humiliation and suffering is repulsive. Our natural human tendency is to go in the other direction, what Martin Luther called a theology of glory. A theology of glory provides big, white fluffy, sweet, theological marshmallows. Theological marshmallows like: God’s plan is for you to be rich and prosperous. Theological marshmallows like: it’s all about getting ahead through positive thinking. These are the spiritual tidbits we want to put in our mouths and take it into our souls. And they are about as nourishing as a marshmallow. They’re highly palatable – very sweet, very nice texture, good mouth-feel, but they will not feed you to eternal life. A theology of glory is always believable. A theology of the cross, not.
This is why in the New Testament, Paul appeals to Isaiah 53:1 when he discusses the unbelief of the Jews in Romans 10. The gospel of our salvation is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews – he says that in 1 Corinthians 1. It is not natural or normal to believe the gospel. It is not to be expected that people will get this. It requires a supernatural work of grace. It requires the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. It requires the gift of new life worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit with the Word.
Beloved brothers and sisters, this morning we’ve again heard the gospel of our salvation. Our Saviour went to the cross to pay the price that we could not pay for ourselves. With all his suffering he has satisfied God’s justice on our behalf. Your sins have been paid for in full. This is the good news we’re called to believe again. We need to pray for the continuing work of the Spirit that we may always embrace this good news. That we may continue to rest and trust in Christ alone for our welfare today and tomorrow and for eternity. Nothing is more important. Nothing is more important for our children too. Let me ask you parents with young children: do you pray for your children that they would have the gift of the Spirit so they can believe the message of the gospel? Do you pray regularly and fervently for your kids so that the arm of the Lord would be revealed to them? And if you have older kids who have made public profession of their faith, do you pray for them too that they would continue to embrace the gospel and rejoice in it? If we truly love our children, let’s pray for them and for the work of the Spirit in them. Let’s trust that God will answer our prayers so that they will believe what is unbelievable.
Loved ones, the true picture of Jesus is found in the Word of God. Along with the sacraments, the Bible is God’s Media. If we want to understand Christ and believe in him, it’s the Word to which we need to turn. In that Word, we find a picture that the natural person finds revolting. By nature, we turn away from the cross and the Saviour who hung there. But with the help of the Spirit, we turn to him and we believe the message. We believe what God revealed to Isaiah. Then to us the arm of the LORD has been revealed and we are saved. AMEN.