March 1st, 2016

The Tragic and Triumphant Cross Leading to Hope for Us All” 

cross20“Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 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. 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. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 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. 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.”

“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 in silent, so he did not open his mouth. 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. 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.”

“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. 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. 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. (Isaiah 53:1-12)

Several passages from the later part of Isaiah are referred to as the Suffering Servant songs. (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13–53:12). This mysterious figure, spoken about by Isaiah over five hundred years before the coming of Jesus, is chosen by God to take on the sin and sufferings of others. The Servant seems to be a failure, suffering a shameful and unjust death. Yet through his trials, the Servant accomplishes God’s saving will, bringing justification and life not only for Israel but for all the nations. No other passages from the Old Testament speak more eloquently of the mystery of the cross.

God’s Servant is despised and rejected, he is stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Yet, the Servant is innocent and his suffering is for the sake of others. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. He is a vicarious sufferer, taking upon himself the suffering that others deserved. As a result of his ordeal, others are healed and made whole. Reading verses 5 and 6 again, we realize that whoever the “we” and “us” were in Israel’s history, this passage now includes us all. We have gone astray and turned away. God “has laid upon him the iniquity of us all”, like the guilt of the people was laid on the sin offerings and the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. In him our sin finds forgiveness, our brokenness is made whole, our spiritual illness is healed.

Like the silent lamb led to the slaughter, the Servant was quiet and unprotesting as he made his way to death. Subjected to an unjust trial, he was led from the court to his execution, cut off and stricken with a violent death. Innocent to the end, he was buried like a common criminal. Finally, the writer expresses the meaning of the suffering, informing us that the Servant’s life was an offering for sin, that he bore our iniquities and the sins of many, and that he made intercession for transgressors.

Throughout salvation history, God’s people have struggled to understand how God would break the pattern of sin and punishment and replace it with forgiveness and compassion. The system of animal sacrifice was a partial answer to that dilemma, but it was inadequate. The work of the Suffering Servant is modeled on the ancient rites of the Day of Atonement, yet it far surpasses them because the sacrifice offered is a human person. Since sin involves the will and animals cannot willingly offer themselves, animals can never fully substitute for people. The Servant offered himself personally, consciously, and deliberately, doing what sheep, goats, and bulls could never do.

Who was this Suffering Servant? Prophecy is capable of multiple fulfillment, and this prophecy was fulfilled progressively in the prophet himself, in various kings of Israel, and collectively in the Jewish people, before it was fulfilled definitively in Jesus on the cross. These passages from Isaiah reverberate throughout the passion narratives of the four gospels, and clearly the disciples of Jesus read these prophetic verses to help them understand the suffering and death of Jesus. Because of the testimony of the Old Testament, the early Christians realized that God chose to accomplish his saving will through suffering, that God redeemed us through the sacrifice of Christ, and that he forgave us and healed us forever through the cross of Jesus.

Reflection

What parts of the passion narratives of the gospels echo the prophecy of the Suffering Servant?

Prayer

Suffering Servant of God, you have taken my sins upon yourself and have suffered in place of me. Help me to trust in the power of your sacrifice to heal me and free me from guilt.

Amen

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