The Suffering Servant
God loved Israel (Deut. 7:7-8). He chose them to be a people for his own possession (Deut. 7:6). He gave them the sacred oracles.
They were to be the channel of the divine revelation for the nations around them. He thus placed his people, their prophets, and the Scriptures in the Holy Land – at the centre of the world, the place of the convergence of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Light would thereby shine forth unto all.
Some took advantage of the strategic placement of truth. One thinks of the Queen of Sheba, Ruth the Moabitess, and the Ethiopian eunuch. All made their way to Israel, searching after the way of life.
Israel understood the task given by God; they were to be the light of the world. The Jews had ‘in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and truth’ (Rom. 2:20). They regarded themselves as ‘a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness’ (Rom. 2:19). More often than not, however, they failed in their calling. Far from being a holy city, Jerusalem had become Sodom, even Gomorrah (Isa. 1:10). They taught others, but not themselves (Rom. 2:21). Their lives did not lead others to put their trust in the Lord. The apostle laid this indictment at the feet of Israel: ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ (Rom. 2:24).
Called by God
Israel had failed in its mission.
The Lord’s purposes, however, were not defeated. He had chosen Another to accomplish his purpose of blessing the nations. He would uphold him and enable him by putting his Spirit upon him (Isa. 42:1). He would be ‘a light to the nations’, the one ‘to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon’ (Isa. 42:6-7).
It could truly be said to this man: ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will show my glory’ (Isa. 49:3). Through him, the man named Israel, the purpose of God would find realization. To his Servant the Lord gave the promise: ‘I will make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (Isa. 49:6).
Promises were given. A virgin would be with child and bear a son (Isa. 7:14). From Bethlehem the ruler in Israel would go forth (Mic. 5:2). He would be called from the womb to the ministry given by God (Isa. 49:2). He would be a king, the Prince of Peace, seated ‘on the throne of David and over his kingdom’ (Isa. 9:6-7). He would be a priest, the one who ‘would render himself as a guilt offering’ (Isa. 53:10). He would be the ultimate sacrifice, for ‘he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of the people, to whom the stroke was due’ (Isa. 53:8).
Immanuel would be burdened not only for Israel, but also for the nations (Isa. 49:5-6). We hear an exhortation from the lips of the Coming One: ‘Listen to me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar’ (Isa. 49:1). We learn from this that in his priestly work ‘he will sprinkle many nations’, bringing cleansing from sin (Isa. 52:15).
Honoured by Magi
This then is the background. A child will be born. A son will be given. He will be the light of the nations. Salvation will reach to the end of the earth.
The affirmation of the apostle should thus come as no surprise: ‘Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”’ (Matt. 2:1-2).
We should remember the historical setting in which this question was raised. The Roman historian Suetonius referred to an idea that had been circulating in the first century. ‘A firm persuasion had long prevailed through all the East,’ he wrote, ‘that it was fated for the empire of the world, at that time, to devolve on some who should go forth from Judaea’ (Life of Vespasian, 4:5). We are reminded in this statement that the world was providentially prepared for the fulfillment of the Old Testament Messianic expectation. As Paul himself put it, ‘When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his son, born of a woman’ (Gal. 4:4).
The magi made a crucial declaration upon their arrival in Jerusalem. The king of prophecy has now been born! More than that, they intended to give more than a respectful greeting. They explained, ‘For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him’ (Matt. 2:2).
This attitude contrasted sharply with the mindset of the elites of the time. ‘When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matt. 2:3). Position was everything, whether political or priestly. The Messiah was a disturbance. He might get in the way. Furthermore, what was so special about him, anyway?
All of this had been anticipated: ‘He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to him’ (Isa. 53:2). Superficial judgments would bring the Isaianic prophetic fulfillment: ‘He was despised and forsaken of men’ (Isa. 53:3).
The magi, on the other hand, were men who were touched by the Holy Spirit. They had illumination of the truth at hand. The Servant would be ‘abhorred’ by Israel, but great ones from far away nations would see him differently. ‘Kings will see and arise; princes will also bow down’ (Isa. 49:7). This, of course, is precisely what the magi did. They made their way to Bethlehem. ‘They saw the child with Mary his mother; and they fell to the ground and worshipped him’ (Matt. 2:11a).
Rejected by Men
There was more, though, than even the adoration of true worship. Matthew adds, ‘Then, opening their treasures, they presented to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh’ (Matt. 2:11b).
Their gifts were an expression of their love and devotion, but they also indicated the offices that he would hold and the path that he would take. For the king they brought gold, and to the priest they gave pure incense. But he was more than just a king and a priest. He was the king who would be nailed on a cross and the priest who would offer himself. Thus they presented to him myrrh (John 19:39-40). He was the child who was born in order that he might die. By ‘oppression and judgment’ he would be ‘taken away’ (Isa. 53:8).
The myrrh foreshadowed the humiliation that was to come. There would be the life of suffering. ‘Our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried’ (Isa. 53:4). There would be his ‘scourging’ by which ‘we are healed’ (Isa. 53:5). There would be the crucifixion: ‘He was pierced through for our transgressions’ (Isa. 53:5). There would be his burial: ‘His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet he was with a rich man in his death’ (Isa. 53:9).
At one moment in his suffering, the thought passed through his mind that his entire life had been a waste. We hear the thinking of the Servant: ‘But I said, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”’ (Isa. 49:4). In the mercy of God, the depression of spirit did not prevail. The Father had given him a promise: ‘I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you’ (Isa. 42:6). His life would not be one of vanity, one without enduring consequences.
His achievements would last forever.
‘As a result of the anguish of his soul, he will see it and be satisfied’ (Isa. 53:11). What sight would bring him satisfaction? ‘He will see his offspring’ (Isa. 53:19). The day would come when the Servant would look out upon the great host of believers who put their trust in him. Although cut off in his youth, he would not die without children.
It is because of the cross that we have justification, the divine verdict that we are accepted as righteous by God. How can this be? Isaiah explains how this comes about: ‘My Servant will justify the many, as he will bear their iniquities’ (Isa. 53:11). Because the Messiah bore our sins and thereby removed them from us, God sees no guilt in the believer. Paul fills out the details of how justification is effected in his classic statement of the great exchange: ‘He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor. 5:21).
What must we believe about justification? It is by grace alone (Tit. 3:7). It is through faith alone (Rom. 3:28). It is because of Christ alone. Indeed, our salvation rests upon the foundation of the obedience of the Servant, the one who said, ‘I was not disobedient, nor did I turn back’ (Isa. 50:5). As Paul would later say, ‘Through the obedience of the One the many will made righteous’ (Rom. 5:19).
Let us never forget, as Luther put it, that ‘Christ apprehended by faith, and dwelling in the heart, is the true Christian righteousness, for which God counts us righteous and gives us eternal life’ (Comm. on Gal. 2:16). Calvin heartily concurred with this understanding of biblical doctrine. ‘Christ is righteous not for himself,’ he wrote, ‘but possesses a righteousness which he communicates to us.’ This is why Christ came, ‘to bring righteousness which would avail to the salvation of men’ (Comm. on Jer. 23:6).
This blessing is for all who are ‘in him’ (2 Cor. 5:21).
Have you come to him? Have you put your trust in him?
All is well for the person who knows Jesus. God himself has promised to all who believe: ‘The Righteous One, my Servant, will justify the many, as he will bear their iniquities’ (Isa. 53:11).