The Story of the Lamb (Isaiah 53)

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.

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The Ultimate Innocence Project Client (Isaiah 53:1-12)

It would be a terrible thing to be falsely accused of a crime, tried by jury, found guilty, and sentenced to death. But it does happen; and if it happened to you, it would be your desire to have someone contend for your innocence. There is an organization called “The Innocence Project,” defined on their web page as “a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent further injustice.” There have been 305 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States… 18 of whom were on death row. In about one-half of cases, the actual perpetrator of the crime has been identified.

It is one thing to be falsely accused and sentenced for someone else’s crime, but it would be even more incredible to willingly offer oneself as the substitute for the guilt and death sentence of another – and to do it in such a manner as to not murmur nor complain in any way. And that is what Jesus Christ has done for us as he has taken our place as our substitute – having our sin imputed to his account that he may make the substitutionary atonement for it – done willingly in love.

Throughout this series we have talked about the Old Testament / Old Covenant method of a lamb taking the place of the guilty sinner. We have seen this on the Day of Atonement and the Passover event and commemoration. As well, we recall to mind the Scripture that Christ is the Lamb of God and the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. And today, we see this incredible passage from Isaiah – written by the prophet hundreds of years in advance of the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross.

We see Christ depicted as an ordinary man who had placed upon him the transgressions of mankind. The scene was terribly gruesome, the suffering too difficult to view. See the verbs deployed by Isaiah: punished, despised, stricken, afflicted, pierced, crushed, oppressed, cut off.

The passage abounds with sheep references as well, speaking of how we in our humanity resemble the stupid side of sheepdom – the capacity for wandering away and getting lost in the self-absorbed activity of eating and engaging in creature comforts.

The lamb illustration is also used of Christ’s work, though it is not a perfect picture. Only one aspect of a lamb is selected to make one point – that being the silence of the animal when not complaining about what is going to happen to it. But unlike the daft lamb, Christ knew what was to come in bearing the sufferings of the cross. He wrestled mightily with it in the Garden of Gethsemane, but having dealt with it there, in total submission and obedience to the Father, Jesus set his face to go to the cross willingly as our substitute.

Our sin – imputed to us from Adam, and then transferred from us to Christ’s account – has been judged and God has been propitiated. So why not receive the imputed righteousness of Christ that makes us adopted children of God? The ultimate Innocence Project guy has taken your place and the debt is fully paid. You can be free!

Isaiah 53:1-12    

53:1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppressionand judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of lifeand be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,and he will divide the spoils with the strong,because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Cross Words for today:

Peace – Often the Scriptures speak of the new condition of peace that exists when the work of the cross has made and opened a restored condition of peace between God and man.

Torn – This word is used of the body of Christ upon the cross. It fits well with the verbs used in today’s Isaiah passage.

Pure – A state of innocence exists when something is pure – free from the stain, filth, and debt of sin. 

puzzle day 17