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April 4 lesson: The Suffering Servant

March 15, 2021
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The Suffering Servant

Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 2: Prophets of Restoration

Sunday school lesson for the week of April 4, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady


Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 53:4-11a
Key Verse: Isaiah 53:5


Lesson Aims
  1. Restate what the servant of the Lord would accomplish through suffering
  2. Explain how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy.
  3. Write a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord, using language from today’s passage, and use it as a source of devotion every day this week.
Kyle Yates, an Old Testament scholar who taught seminary for many years, once referred to Isaiah 53 as the “Mount Everest” of Old Testament prophecy. The writer of the lesson points out that analogy brings to mind the reality that mountain summits are not reached without first doing a lot of hiking up difficult terrain. However, reaching a summit – a passage like Isaiah 53 – makes us realize that the climb is worthwhile.

Lesson Context: The Prophecies of Isaiah

The importance of the book of Isaiah is understood in the fact that it is quoted more than five dozen times in the New Testament. Isaiah prophesied in Jerusalem during dismal times for God’s people. His prophetic call came “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1), which would have been 740 BC. The latest historical event recorded (not prophesied) by the prophet is the death of the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib (37:37-38), which occurred in 681 BC. Since this represents a lengthy period of ministry it is probably safe to say that Isaiah’s call came when he was a teenager or thereabouts.

The span of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry included the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 BC. The southern kingdom of Judah was in danger of going the same route in 701 BC. However, the presence and the prayer of a godly king, Hezekiah (Isaiah 37:14-20), resulted in an outcome far different from what the north experienced. Isaiah assured the king that the capital city of Jerusalem would be spared (37:33-35), and it was – miraculously (37:36).

However, with spiritual guidance, Isaiah spoke of a future day when Jerusalem would not be delivered: it would come under the control of the Babylonians (Isaiah 39:5-7). But Isaiah also promised that the Lord was not finished with Jerusalem or with his people. To the contrary, the Lord would rebuild the city through the efforts of a ruler whom Isaiah named: Cyrus (44:24-45:1). But in addition, Isaiah looked beyond even this restoration to someone far greater than Cyrus.

Lesson Context: The Servant

The Lord’s “servant” is one of the most striking figures in the book of Isaiah. The term “servant” is sometimes a reference to the entire nation of Israel. It describes the special relationship the covenant people have with God (see Isaiah 41:8). In other places, “servant” seems to describe a remnant of God’s people, referring specifically to those who remained following captivity in Babylon (example: 48:20).

And there are still other passages where the word “servant” points to one individual who was assigned a very special role to fulfill. As we are told, four passages in Isaiah – often called Servant Songs – function in this way to point to the Messiah: Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12 (Isaiah 61:1-5 can also be include since Jesus applied it to himself in Luke 4:16-21). This servant would carry out his tasks in a way that neither the nations of Israel nor the remnant could ever do.

The servant passage studied today is the fourth in the list, beginning, “see, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13). Some suggests this refers to Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and exaltation to the right hand of the father. It ultimately focused on His exaltation (Acts 2:31-33).

The passage then describes the astonishment and rejection many would experience at the servant’s lowly and repulsive appearance (52:14-53:3). Prior to the servant’s exaltation is His humiliation (52:14). Our printed text begins with an explanation of the servant’s sorrows and grief that are introduced in Isaiah 53:3.

Christians have long and rightly interpreted the prophetic Servant Songs as fulfilled in Jesus alone. For instance, Isaiah 53:7-8 makes up the passage that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading when Philip approached his chariot. The Ethiopian asked whether the prophet was speaking of himself or someone else. And Philip “began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). No other figure appears in Scripture who claims to be the servant, and only Christ fulfills all that were written about that servant in those passages. The importance of today’s text is understood in the fact that the New Testament quotes from the song in which it occurs seven times.

The Servant’s Death
Isaiah 53:4-9


Understanding how “suffering” was often viewed in biblical times (both Old and New Testaments; examples Job 4:7-8; John 9:2), those who witnessed the servant’s suffering saw it as a punishment “by God.” The servant was deemed to be bearing the “path” and “suffering” associated with his own sinful actions. No one would have assumed that he was suffering on account of the wrongdoings of others.

Yet, followers of Jesus can readily see in verse 4 a compelling description of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Those who mocked him there communicated their belief that God had abandoned him – that he was punished, stricken, and afflicted. Indeed, there was a sense in which the servant was punished “by God,” in that Jesus fulfilled God’s “deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23).
 
However, why Jesus suffered matters tremendously! Being only partially right about Jesus’ suffering is terribly wrong about what it could accomplish.

Jesus’ death was the ultimate example of substitutionary atonement – the idea in Christianity which regards Jesus as dying as a substitute for others, “instead of” them.

In the Law of Moses, atonement for sins was fulfilled through God’s accepting the sacrifice of animals (Leviticus 1:4-5, etc.). They were substitutes for the people who had sinned and so deserved to die (Romans 6:23). Jesus, however, became the perfect sacrifice for others’ sins (Roman 3:25). For this reason, we no longer offer sacrifice of grain or oil or animals; Jesus is the last and perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10-14).

God created the world in an instant, and it was a beautiful process. God re-created the world on the cross – and it was a horrible process. But that’s how love works. Love that really changes things and redeems things is always a substitutionary sacrifice.

Jesus died so that a complete reversal of the curse of sin could be accomplished (see Genesis 3:14-19; Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:5). The wholeness of body accomplished by Jesus’ servanthood is illustrated in Matthew 8:14-17. Immediately following a description of Jesus’ healing ministry and his power to cast out unclean spirits, Matthew writes that all this happened to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 8:17).

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, miracles and signs pointed out that he possessed power to heal all brokenness, sinfulness or otherwise. And His return will usher in new heavens and a new earth from which sin and its consequences will be banished. But until that day, Jesus takes our infirmities and sicknesses, not by healing them immediately in every instance but by providing grace in those circumstances. As God said to Paul in his infirmity, He says to us in ours, “My grace is sufficient for you” (II Corinthians 12:9).

In verse 5, the emphasis is again on “he’ and “our.” He was wounded for our transgressions. We are guilty, but Jesus was treated as though he were. “Punishment” signals the consequence for sin, the consequences we deserve. “Peace” with God is the result (Romans 5:1); indeed, Christ is our peace (Ephesians 2:14-17).

We see in verse 6 that humanity’s descent into sin is not something we have no part in; we make choices to turn from God. As Dallas preacher Tony Evans put it: “One reason we don’t have a high view of sin today is that we have a love view of God…we have become too comfortable living in an age that devalues God’s standards and makes acceptable that which He hates.” Yet the one against whom we sin placed our wrongdoings and their punishment on the servant. “All” is repeated to emphasize that every one of us has sinned and the servant has given his life for each of us.

Moving on to verses 7-9, the servant would respond to his cruel treatment with silence. This is somewhat amazing when we think of who Jesus was and the power in his spoken word. Jesus used his words to heal the sick, raise the dead, calm storms, and work other miracles. Yet when it came to defending himself, he said nothing. Such silence should produce a reverent silence in us.
 
However, and I need to add, Jesus did not remain silent even when others were being harmed especially by leaders who should have cared for them. He called out the enemies who would kill him – the teachers of the law and the Pharisees – for the ways their hypocrisies damaged the people of Israel. Without doubt, his speech on behalf of others contributed to the hatred those powerful leaders felt for Jesus. Yet he did not argue on his own behalf to proclaim his innocence.

Again, the servant’s atoning death was voluntary. He presented Himself to his executioners like a willing sacrificial lamb (v.7). He was arrested and sentenced to death. In his enemies’ hatred and hands, Jesus was denied any semblance of a fair proceeding. For example, a person could not be put to death except on the testimony of two or three witnesses according to Deuteronomy 17:6. The witnesses called to testify against Jesus did not agree in their testimony (Mark 14:55-59), but he was still found guilty and crucified.

Jesus fulfilled verse 9 in two ways. First, Jesus was an innocent man who was convicted as if he were a notorious criminal. That resulted when a crowd was offered a choice between releasing him or a man guilty of murder and insurrection, and they chose the latter. As a result, Jesus was hung between two criminals as if he were one of them. Jesus had engaged in violence to clean the temple, but he never committed a violent act that would call for Roman crucifixion.

Second, Jesus was buried in the grave of a rich man. Normally, criminals at the time of Jesus who were executed were left unburied. Eventually, the beasts and the bird consumed their remains. Jesus, however, was treated differently as two factors come together: a request by Jewish leaders to get the bodies off the crosses and a request by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, to have Jesus’ interment in his tomb.

The Servant’s Delight
Isaiah 53:10-11a


God was at work in and through the servant’s suffering, though not in the sense that God was punishing the servant for his own sins. In truth, the servant’s suffering and death constituted “an offering for sin.” The Hebrew term used here refers to the guilt offering (see Leviticus 5:1-6:7).

We are reminded that what made this offering distinct from others was the connection between the sin committed and the remedy stipulated in the law. Jesus’ atoning death on the cross was exactly what humanity needed. And it was a sacrifice that needed to be offered only once (Hebrews 7:26-27; 9:24-28). And by Jesus’ death, he destroyed “him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

As a result, the servant will see his offering. The number of Jesus’ disciples – “his offering – “has continued to grow since the first century AD, when his church was established. And that the servant will “prolong his days” likely points to Jesus’ resurrection. It was only then that his disciples began to grasp how he fulfilled many prophecies, including this one.

Like a victorious general who has conquered the enemy, the servant will be victorious through his death, dividing the spoils of battle by conquering both sin and Satan.

But just as we cannot begin to understand the depth of Jesus’ suffering at the cross, we cannot imagine the joy that he felt after he uttered the words “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Let’s be sure we understand. The song has been sung. The blood has been poured. The sacrifice has been made. Forgiveness has been offered, and the sting of death has been removed. There is nothing more God could do to ease the human race. There is no Plan B. Plan A (the death of Christ) is good enough.

“Paid in full” means that once a thing is paid for, you never have to pay for it again. As a matter of fact, we are foolish if we try to pay for it again.

Writing in his book, “In the Shadow of the Cross,” Ray Pritchard says that all your sins have been stamped with three words – “It is finished” (paid in full).
Anger…paid in full.
Gossip…paid in full
Drunkenness…paid in full.
Adultery…paid in full.
Lying…paid in full.
Wrong priorities…paid in full.
Pride…paid in full.
Laziness…paid in full.
Unkindness…paid in full.
Indifference…paid in full.

These are just a few examples. Whatever your sin, just fill in the blank. And then write over it – “paid in full.”

So Jesus’ death was not an accident or random tragedy as we use those terms. Rather, his death was the fulfillment of a divine plan to rescue lost humanity. And the study of a majestic passage such as Isaiah 53 should not end with this or any other lesson. All of us should continually scale the heights.

Action Plan
  1. Without beginning with Scripture, how would you respond to an unbeliever who claims to have no sin?
  2. How would you answer a person who questions the fairness of Jesus being punished for sins committed by others?
  3. How will study of today’s text result in changes to your thoughts, words and actions?
Resources for this lesson
  1. “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 265-272.
  2. “The Interpreter’s Bible Volume 5,” pages 614-627.
  3. “The Abingdon Bible Commentary,” pages 663-664.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).

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