Old Testament Fulfillment Series: Christ as Suffering Servant

Isa. 42:1-9; 49:1-5; 50:2-9; 52:13-53:12

Jesus Christ fulfills the great themes of the Old Testament. Christ not only comes to earth as perfect man (second Adam), but He also comes as a Prophet-Redeemer (second Moses), Priest (second Abraham) and King (second David). These prophetic, redemptive, priestly, and kingly streams all flow into the mighty rushing river of messianic expectations, which reach their fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ.    

Devout Jews would have been familiar with these themes. Everyone knew that when the messiah came, he would fulfill these expectations. However, we know from reading the New Testament that when the Incarnation actually arrived, He caught us all by surprise. If Jesus had come forth like a mighty warrior and overthrown the power of Rome, many would have said that this was exactly the way they expected His kingly role to be fulfilled. What we discover, however, is that Jesus fulfilled these roles in ways that were unexpected. No one could have imagined that Jesus would come to suffer and die on the cross. It was completely scandalizing to think that this suffering Jesus was actually God in the flesh. There was no preparation to consider the possibility that God himself would come to earth as the great High Priest and offer Himself as a sacrifice, then rise again as the victorious King. Or was there? Throughout the pages of Israel’s history, there was indeed a more subtle strand, a nuanced preparation for this unexpected revelation of Christ that would only be understood in retrospect as the early Christians looked back upon their prophets’ messages.

There are four passages in Isaiah that highlight a major figure mysteriously known simply as the Suffering Servant. These texts are found in Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:2-9 and 52:13-53:12. There are several important themes in these passages. First, the Suffering Servant is sent on a mission from God. Second, this mission involves suffering on behalf of another. Third, although the servant will suffer and be rejected, he will, in the end, be exalted and vindicated. Finally, his suffering will bring justice, salvation, and blessing to all nations.

The fourth Suffering Servant song, found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, opens with a scene in heaven where God declares how beautiful are the feet of His messenger who will bring good news and announce salvation. The servant is sent on a mission from God. God declares, “My servant shall prosper” (52:13). He will receive a three-fold blessing of being “raised, lifted up, and highly exalted” (52:13). The language reflects the coronation and exaltation of a King being exalted in God’s presence. However, this extraordinary exultation is set against the backdrop of suffering.  He is “marred and disfigured” (52:14). He is “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (53:3). The song goes on to declare that the servant will suffer on behalf of another: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (53:4). “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). It was the will of God that this servant experience suffering. For, it was through vicarious suffering that “my righteous servant will justify many” (53:11) and bear the sins of many, making intercession for the transgressors (53:12). The unfolding picture of the servant is predicted to cause astonishment among the nations and silence the kings of the earth (52:15).

References to the Suffering Servant song in the New Testament make it clear that the early church understood that Jesus Christ was the Suffering Servant. He was sent on a mission from God, which involved suffering on behalf of others. It was only through that suffering that the nations would be redeemed, and God’s ultimate plan would be accomplished.

When Jesus came and began to heal the sick and cast out demons, the Gospel of Matthew identifies Jesus with the Suffering Servant who “took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17, quoting Isaiah 53:4). Later, after the Resurrection, Philip encountered an Ethiopian Eunuch reading the Suffering Servant song from Isaiah 53, quoting verse 7: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth” (Acts 8:32). We are told that Philip joined the Ethiopian in the chariot and, “Starting with this Scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). The Ethiopian was baptized, becoming not only the first African Christian, but also signifying the global, multi-ethnic reach of the redemption found in Jesus Christ! The Apostle Peter also identifies the Suffering Servant with Jesus when he declares, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22, quoting Isaiah 53:9).

The earliest Christians were totally disillusioned when Jesus was sentenced to die upon the cross.  All of their messianic hopes seemed to be dashed to the ground. They did not see how Jesus’ death could fulfill all of the kingly, prophetic and priestly roles that they expected in their long-anticipated messiah. What they did not realize, however, is that there was a deeper plan that they had not anticipated: namely, that God would reveal His greatest glory through suffering. God would be exalted through humiliation. God would ultimately be victorious through suffering defeat. Christ would be both priest and sacrifice!

In C. S. Lewis’ well-known story, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the evil witch demands the life of young Edmund, who had been revealed as a traitor. She demands exact and unmerciful payment. What he owes her must be paid – and paid in full – with nothing less than Edmund’s life. The great lion, Aslan, who is the Christ-figure in the story, comes forward and tells the evil witch that he is willing to suffer and die in place of Edmund. The witch agrees and kills Aslan, celebrating her victory over her archenemy, the lion. However, at the dawn of a new day, Aslan rose from death to life. Aslan explains that although the wicked witch knew the “deep magic” that demanded the death of one who is a traitor, her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. Aslan knew a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.” That knowledge was that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery offered up his life for the traitor, then death itself would be overturned.

This is a picture of what God has done in the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of the great themes and figures in the Old Testament are brought together and fulfilled through the life and work of the Suffering Servant. John Wesley summed up this amazing truth in his hymn, “And Can it Be?”

“He left his father’s throne above, so free, so infinite his grace,

Emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race;

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!

“Tis mercy all, the Immortal dies! Who can explore his strange design?

In vain the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine.

‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore, let angels’ minds inquire no more!”

The mystery of the Suffering Servant is, indeed, a “strange design.” Yet, this is what led the Apostle Paul to determine “to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). It is in the presence of the Crucified One, God’s Suffering Servant, that we finally begin to see the full contours of God’s great plan. In the gift of God’s Son into the world – One born to suffer and die – we finally come to fully know and understand the love of God.

You may have been disappointed in the love you received from your parents, or, if you are married, from your spouse. However, in Jesus Christ the fullness of God’s love is revealed. It is love alone that transforms us; we will never hate our sin enough to leave it. It is God’s love that transforms us – it is in the arms of His great embrace that we discover what it really means to be a child of God, adopted into His family. There are many wonderful things we can say about God.  We can joyfully declare that our triune God is a great King, or our High Priest, or the greatest Prophet. But there is no greater declaration than the profound truth that God is love. Yes, God is love – we know it because Jesus Christ came into the world as the Suffering Servant. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).


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