I can remember an old Peanuts cartoon, where Charlie and Linus pass by a sign that reads “Jesus is the answer!” In the next panel, Linus turns to Charlie and asks, “What was the question?”
The question changes everything. The way we define the problem shapes the way we view the Solution. In today’s world, it’s easy to forget just how much of a problem “sin” truly is—both inside and outside the church.
If you don’t have a background in church, then “sin” must sound like a throwback to an archaic, “Leave-it-to-Beaver” style America where we frowned at anything fun and women were burned as witches for learning math. But in the fourth century, a man named Saint Augustine wrote that sin is a form of “dis-ordered” love. Think of your heart as a pyramid. You will never flourish, Augustine would say, until God rests at its apex. All other loves are meant to occupy the lesser spaces below. And we know this, even implicitly. If I love possessions more than people, my soul withers under greed’s dark shadow. If I become preoccupied with sex, I become a prisoner of lust. Even the self-esteem movement has recently conceded that high self-esteem can often lead to self-absorption. Nothing is more caustic than our devotion to self.
But if I come from within the church, then I tend to minimize sin as merely “doing bad things.” I can learn to “manage” sin through a codified system of behavior and morals. And that’ll never work, the Bible says, because nothing can erase the damage that’s already been done.
All of that serves as backdrop to the story of the Lamb.
THE SUFFERING SERVANT
One of the keys to understanding Isaiah is to recognize the “suffering servant” passages that appear in the latter half of his text. These texts point to an idealized servant of God whose suffering is part of God’s larger redemptive framework of creation, fall, and redemption.
In the larger picture of the Bible, we can easily see the way that Jesus is the true and better servant. All of these texts point to His atoning work on the cross. In his excellent work The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Leon Morris observes that over time, Israel came to see all shed blood as atoning for sin—meaning every sacrificial lamb, goat, etc. were viewed as having the same purifying quality. So when we later hear John the Baptist refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who lifts away the sin of humanity” (John 1:29, 36), he’s saying that Jesus fulfills this sacrificial system once and for all.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a look at what Isaiah had to say about this servant:
Isaiah 53:1-12 Who would have believed what we just heard? When was the LORD’s power revealed him? 2 He sprouted up like a twig before God, like a root out of parched soil; he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him. 3 He was despised and rejected by people, one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness; people hid their faces from him; he was despised, and we considered him insignificant.
Growing up I’d always wondered why Jesus’ earliest followers were so quick to cast aside their lucrative fishing careers to follow a guy they’d never met. One ancient writer thought that “there must have been some divine quality in the face of the Savior.” And I hate that, because it just smacks of bad Sunday School art that depicts Jesus as a white guy with feathered hair who looks suspiciously like Kenny Loggins. But if Isaiah is right, that “he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention,” then it means that Jesus was never one of the “popular” crowd. Instead, I tend to think the early disciples were drawn to a message of hope and forgiveness—something they’d never find on the inside of their tacklebox.
4 But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain; even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done. 5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed. 6 All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path, but the LORD caused the sin of all of us to attack him. 7 He was treated harshly and afflicted, but he did not even open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block, like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not even open his mouth. 8 He was led away after an unjust trial– but who even cared? Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded. 9 They intended to bury him with criminals, but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb, because he had committed no violent deeds, nor had he spoken deceitfully. 10 Though the LORD desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made, he will see descendants and enjoy long life, and the LORD’s purpose will be accomplished through him. 11 Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins. 12 So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful, because he willingly submitted to death and was numbered with the rebels, when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels.”
We could go on for hours unpacking all this. But here we have the gospel in its purest form.
First, Isaiah sees sin as a universal form of disobedience. But in the same breath, Isaiah says that God “caused the sin of us all to attack him.” Keep in mind, the cross was more than a death sentence. It was designed to not only inflict pain, but also to bring shame. Jesus paid for our sin—and he also paid for the consequences of sin—the shame, the blame that began in Paradise long ago.
“Because of his wounds,” Isaiah tells us, “we are healed.” The “punishment that made us well,” Isaiah calls it. If you’re reading that in the original Hebrew, you’d instantly notice the word shalom. The word—as we’ve noted before—refers to God’s peace, joy, and wholeness. It refers to what Cornelius Plantinga calls “the way it’s supposed to be.” Jesus puts everything back together again, and repairs what you and I broke.
Do you see why the idea of sin is so necessary? Let’s go back to Linus and Charlie—the way the question shapes our view of the Answer. If our greatest problem is social, then when I look to Jesus I expect to see another social revolutionary—another Gandhi. If our greatest problem is moral, then when I look to Jesus I expect to find a religious teacher. If our greatest problem is intolerance, then when I look to Jesus I expect to find a spiritual and ethical visionary. But if our greatest problem is sin, then when I look to Jesus I can’t be satisfied with just another religious figure. I need forgiveness. I need a Lamb.
The story of Christianity is a story of how God provided what man could not: a sacrifice that would eradicate the stain of sin once and for all. For humanity, faith marks the boundary between a life of sin and a life with God.