The Substitute

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

28 October 2007

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


In the chapters of Isaiah leading up to this reading, there is a mounting expectation that the Lord will one day rescue and restore his people. The climax comes just before our reading in chapter 52:10, The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.ref

But how will he do this? How can the Holy God deal again with this sinful, rebellious, unclean people? In chapter 51 he has spoken of his wrath upon them, but then he says that he will take it away. How can he do that? How can God's wrath against his guilty people be averted?

The answer is in these verses, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This is the fourth of the Servant Songs in Isaiah which introduces us to this character, the Servant. Last week David went over what the first three Servant Songs have to say about him. In this fourth song the Servant's identity becomes clear, and his work is explained. It would be a great help if you had Bibles to had as we go through: p740.


As we come to the Song, we find that it is quite structured: there are five sections of three verses each. The first and last sections are introduction and conclusion of the Servant's work. The second and fourth concern his life and his death respectively. And the third, central section from v4-6 of chapter 53 are the heart of the Servant's work.

There are so many riches here that it would take much more than one sermon to dig them all out. So all I'm going to do is summarise the five units with a single heading each. I really tried not to make all the headings begin with "S", but I'm afraid it just couldn't be helped.

The Servant is Shocking (52:13-15)

The introduction to the Servant's fourth appearance is in verses 13-15 of chapter 52, and what we find is that he will be shocking.

He will be shocking in himself. Verse 14 tells us that people are going to be appalled or astonished at him. His saving work will result in him being disfigured and marred beyond recognition.

But also, his work will shock because it is unlike anything that has happened before. In verse 15, it is a work that will benefit all nations, not just the one. It will leave even kings speechless because they will never have seen anything like it.

So Isaiah prepares us for what is coming next: the Servant's work is going to be shocking, it may even appal us, and it will be unique, like nothing ever seen before.

The servant is Suffering (53:1-3)

In chapter 53 verses 1-3 Isaiah describes the life of the Servant. And what we find is that the Servant is suffering.

Verse one picks up on chapter 52 verse 10 — we see that this servant is indeed God's way of saving his people: he is the arm of the Lordref. But he is no great warrior, no charismatic leader. Instead we find him unappealing, unattractive, despised and rejected. People could not even bear to look at him. They despised him. So, this great Servant, this arm of the Lord, is a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.ref

The Servant knows what it is to be rejected. He knows the deepest of emotional suffering and anguish. But as we shall see, his suffering is intensely physical as well.

The Servant is a Substitute (53:4-6)

In verses 4-6 we come to the heart of the song. Here we find out the purpose and goal of the Servant's work. We find that he is a substitute.

Seven times in these three verses, something that should have happened to us happens to the Servant instead.

In verse 4, we should be suffering sickness and infirmity, physical and spiritual, but he takes them up instead. We should be burdened down by our sorrows, but he takes them from us and carries them in our place.

In verse 5, we are the ones who commit transgressions — that is, wilful rebellion against God — but he is the one who is pierced for them. We are the ones who commit iniquities — it is our human nature that is perverted and bent out of shape — but it is he who is crushed for it.

We find that we are the ones who ought to be punished by God, but he was punished instead so that we can know peace with God. We are the ones who deserve to be wounded, to be destroyed, because of our evil hearts, but he was wounded that our hearts might be healed.

Verse 6 summarises and makes quite clear and plain what happened to the Servant. Every one of us has gone astray from God. We have wandered off. Every one of us would rather do our own thing without God. We will not have him run our lives.

And God is angry about this! The rest of the book of Isaiah makes that abundantly clear. Again and again we read of his wrath against rebellious people. The Bible constantly confronts us with the fact that because you and I will not put God in his rightful place in our lives he is angry with us. And he has every right to be so.

But the astonishing news in verse 6 is that although the rebellion is all ours, it was the Servant on whom God placed it all. The Servant is a substitute: he takes our place before God. He takes what we deserve.

Are you shocked yet? You ought to be; it is shocking. But there is more to come

The servant is a Sacrifice (53:7-9)

Section four concerns the servant's death. I could have chosen any number of "S"s from this section: silence, slaughter, stricken, sinless, but I've chosen to wrap them up in the single word, sacrifice, because that is what is happening here.

The people of God already had a way to deal with their sin: God had given them an elaborate sacrificial system in which the death of animals was to atone for the guilt of the people. God's justice demands the death of a sinner; but because of his love he made provision for sacrificial animals to die that death instead.

But it was clear that this sacrificial system could never be ultimately effective. It was only ever a stop-gap measure, a pointing forward to the ultimate sacrifice to come — the sacrifice of the Servant.

So, in this three-verse section of Isaiah we find a human sacrifice taking place. An animal can never willingly go to slaughter, but Isaiah makes sure we understand that the Servant did. He could have spoken up; he could have defended himself. But he chose not to do so. We are told he was silent, and twice more it says he did not open his mouthref. The Servant was willing to die this death.

The sacrifice of an unwilling human victim would be grotesque, and repellent, and indefensible, and God condemns it throughout the Bible. But we are to be sure that the Servant went willingly to his death, knowing that by it he accomplished the saving work of God.

The end of verse 9 makes it clear that he did not deserve this death: he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouthref. But he chose to die it, a perfect sinless sacrifice.

The Servant is Successful (53:10-12)

In the fifth, concluding section from verse 10, we find that none of what has gone before was accidental. It all came about as result of the Lord's will. God himself planned the suffering, the substitution and the sacrifice all for a purpose. And the Servant was successful in achieving that purpose — that's the fifth heading.

This is perhaps the most shocking statement of all: that it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to sufferref. This would be grotesque if it didn't achieve a much greater good. Surely God wouldn't have done it — the servant wouldn't have done it — unless it was absolutely necessary.

But it was necessary, and in the end it was utterly successful. The Servant achieved what he set out to achieve, which is to save the people from the wrath of God. The very end of the chapter reiterates this: he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressorsref.

There is an extraordinary expectation in these verses. It's clear from the last section that part of the Servant's work is to die: sacrifices die; he is cut off from the land of the living; he is consigned to the grave. Yet in this section we find that after his death he is living. We find him exalted and victorious. Isaiah doesn't actually use the word resurrection, but it's hard to imagine what else he had in mind.

Who is the Servant?

So that is the work of the Servant. It is shocking: the servant suffers, the servant is a substitute, the servant is a sacrifice. But ultimately the servant is successful.

The question remains: who is he?

As David put it last week, the first three servant songs build up for us a kind of photo-fit picture of the servant, a composite image. But here we find what he called an exact DNA match. Although he lived 700 years after this passage was written, there is only one possible candidate, isn't there?

It's a thrilling exercise to go through Isaiah 53 and pick out all the ways that Jesus fulfils it. We haven't the time to do it in detail now, but it would be heart-lifting homework for us all.

Certainly the church saw the connection with Jesus from its very earliest days. In Acts chapter 8 Philip came across the Ethiopian official reading verses 7 and 8 of Isaiah 53 out loud,

he asked Philip, Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else? Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.ref

Of course, the early church learnt to understand Isaiah 53 in this way from Jesus himself, who knew well that he was destined to fulfil the role of suffering Servant. Just before he went to his death Jesus quotes verse 12 of Isaiah 53 saying,

It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfilment.ref

By his use of Isaiah, Jesus means us to see that not only did Isaiah predict the events of his life and death, he also explains them. As the disciples pondered the events of Jesus' death, at some point they would have made the connection: Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah! The lights go on! Not only do the events fit, but the explanation fits as well. What happened when Jesus died a humiliating death on the cross? Was it all pointless? Was it all a terrible failure? No! Isaiah tells us it was all God's plan, laid down centuries earlier, and what he was doing was bearing God's wrath in our place. He was suffering so that we needn't suffer in the hands of an angry God. Jesus was pierced for our transgressions. He is our substitute.


Now, you may be aware that I've just outlined from Isaiah and applied to Jesus is what is known as the doctrine of "penal substitutionary atonement". In plain language, Jesus died in my place bearing the wrath of God that I deserved. You may also be aware that there is a big debate in the wider church at present over this doctrine. Some people hate this doctrine: they cannot conceive that God could punish his Son in anyone's place.

Why does it matter? It matters first because it is true. As we've seen, the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus bore God's wrath in our place. We deny the truth at our peril.

But it matters too on a pastoral level: it matters because Jesus' death in our place is our only hope.

When you lie on your bed at night and make your confession to God for the sins of the day, where is your assurance that his wrath will not destroy you before you wake again?

When I bring to him the harsh words I've said, the pride I've taken over others, my constantly judgemental heart, the greed for more money and more recognition, the lustful thoughts I've had, the loving things I've failed to do, the selfish things I always do, my thanklessness, my self-reliance, the time I've wasted, the fact that I've barely given him a thought that day — when I bring these things to him, I have only one hope. My only hope is that his just and right anger, his wrath that ought to destroy me, has been taken by Jesus in my place. You may not think that these things deserve the full force of God's wrath, but I know they do. They reveal the deep rottenness in my heart. God forbid that we should ever take our sin lightly!

My only hope is that Jesus was punished instead of me. I cannot bear God's anger and live. The only reason I can sleep at night in peace rather than terror is that "the punishment that brings me peace is upon him".

Do you see? Unless we know that God's wrath at our sin has actually been dealt with, we can have no assurance, we can have no hope. We need this doctrine! Without Jesus' death in our place our hope is built on the mist of wishful thinking. But if I am convinced that he died instead of me, then my hope is solid, unbreakable and immovable. We must not let the false teachers rob us of this confidence: on our death beds we are going to need it.


In a few moments we will be taking communion, where we remember Jesus' sacrificial death in our place. I want to finish this sermon by suggesting that there are three types of of response that we might make as we share in communion together.

First, perhaps you are a good person. If so, then please don't join in the communion. It's not for you. Jesus didn't die for good people, he died for those who've gone astray.

Second, perhaps you are here this morning with a real sense that you've been going your own way without God. You may have been close to him in the past; you may never have known him. But right now you feel a burden of guilt that separates you from God. You have no peace; you have no hope; you are sick in your spirit.

How can you get rid of the sin and guilt that crushes any chance of relationship with God? Well, if it were up to you to deal with it, there would be no way.

But what we've seen this morning is that God has provided a way back to himself. In the communion we will remember the death of Jesus. We will remember his sham trial where he remained silent before his accusers. We will remember his beating and mocking, the crowd yelling for his blood, his rejection by every one of his friends. We will remember that he was flogged with whips, that they spat on him and humiliated him, that he was pierced with nails through his wrists and ankles as they nailed him to a wooden cross. We will remember his prolonged death in agony. And we will remember his final cry of dereliction as his Father lays on him the sins of the world: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?ref

This is what the Son of God did for us. This is the price of saving us from our sin: but because of his infinite love for us he did it.

Forgiveness of our sins and peace with God is not a theoretical idea or a nice spiritual thought. We can point to an actual event where it was done: The punishment that brought us peace was upon him. The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. By his wounds we are healed.

This is a gift. If you want to receive it, if you need to receive it, then it would be good to spend the communion time in quiet confession. Bring your sin to God, the sin that took his Son to the cross. Know that it has been taken away and placed on the servant. Resolve not to go your own way any more, but turn back to God.

If that's where you are this morning, please come and talk to me, or David or one of the elders after the service. We would dearly love to pray with you.

Finally, I guess the majority of us here are already relying on Jesus death in our place to put us right with God. In which case, take the communion with deep thankfulness in your hearts. Remember that the Servant's death is your only hope, and confess your sins willingly, desperately and gladly.

But I want us also to remember what the Apostles Paul and Peter say about the self-sacrificial death of Jesus as they reflect on what Isaiah 53 has to say to the church. Paul says your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesusref. Peter says Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his stepsref.

Jesus literally sacrificed himself for us. And so we are to sacrifice ourselves for one-another in service. I've noticed recently a few signs that our spirit of service might be flagging a little. One sign I've detected is some grumpiness from people feeling they are being taken for granted. Sure, it's not good to be taken for granted, but Jesus suffered a good deal worse than that.

As we pass the bread and the cup to one another, let's take time to reflect on how much our attitude is like his. Are we truly giving ourselves up in self-sacrifice? Are we really bearing the burdens of others, knowing that Jesus bears our own?