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What the Servant of Isaiah 53 Set in Motion

Posted by Dr. Allan McNicol on June 1, 2017 at 9:30 AM


One of the pleasant features of retirement from ministry is that I finally can concentrate closely on everything that takes place in the flow of the service.  For some of you this doesn’t sound quite right.  But I confess.  I am like a lot of others.  When you have some clear responsibility to fulfill, those duties are never far from your mind.

So I haven’t always paid the closest of attention to the talks given by those who preside at the table.  But during the last several years it has become different.  I now listen carefully and I have learned a few things.  One of the clearest impressions is the constant reference to Isaiah 53.  What is it about that text that makes it so evocative and resonant for constant use in this situation?

I am formulating a thesis as to why this is; and I wish to use this thesis to make a suggestion about how we as believers may gain an additional insight about this state of affairs.

You probably have noticed by now that the little Baptist church across the street from the school frequently has on its sign, “Jesus paid it all.”  The immediate question centers around the reference to “paying.”  Who has to pay?  For what reason?  Where does Jesus enter into this matter?  Of course we know.

Anyone familiar with the traditional Christian narrative will, of course, be able to put this into a setting: Isaiah 53.  Listen again to the phraseology:

                   Surely our sicknesses-he bore them

                   And our pains he suffered them (v.4)

                   But he was pierced for our transgressions

                   And crushed for our iniquities

                   The punishment for our salvation

                   Lay upon him

                   And by his wounds, healing came to us (v.5)

                   Yet he bore the sin of many

                   And he interceded for the transgressors (v.12) 

The translation is by Otfried Hofius. But ever since Philip in Acts 8 26-40 the interpretations of this text go far and wide.These table talks presume that the servant is speaking figurally of Christ. Perhaps the speakers are consumed with their own shortcomings; and because of that they are filled with wonder that God has given us One who took our place in suffering for our sins. Much more than we are willing to confess most of us carry around burdens about who we truly are—deep inside. My thesis is that given the setting of the table this is reckoned to be the occasion for these sentiments to spill out in our reflections.

Since this is a theological college it probably is about the time I used a German word to describe actually what is taking place.  And I have one.  Germans call this stellvertretung  (place keeping).  The idea is that Christ at the cross, God’s servant, took our place by bearing the punishment for our sins.  If this is true, this is gospel.  What better context to articulate these sentiments than the Lord’s Table.


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When we read Isaiah 53 we are impressed by the servant’s innocence; but at the same time he freely takes the place of many in Israel who should have been punished!  Project this image on the Son of God and there is no way to measure the depths of the grace of God in giving us the servant Messiah.  This is why the people at the Table keep coming back to this theme.

But what about that suggestion of mine?  It occurs to me that what we hear starting with Isaiah 53 is gospel; but not yet its full story.  One has died for us.  He was more than worthy to take our place.  But then why do we trudge into the assembly each week and begin to think about what difference has it really made to me?  Am I still the same person with the same set of inclinations I had last week?  And I have always had?  Have I changed?  Not a good thought?

I would like to suggest that Paul takes us a little farther along.  In Romans 4:25 he gives us a formula that is steeped in early Christian reflection on Isaiah 53.  Again following Hofius, Paul can be read as saying, Jesus was handed over to death to atone for our transgressions and was raised for a kind of justification that brings new life.  In short the whole argument of Paul is that believers have been transformed by the Christ event.  We are not just left wallowing in the cost of our salvation.  We have not only been forgiven of our sins but we have become a new creation.  2 Corinthians 5:17 flatly asserts this.

For centuries preachers have tried to tie Good Friday and Easter Sunday together.  Our version of this wrestling in Churches of Christ takes place each Sunday at the Lord’s Supper.  Maybe it is a little too much to expect.  But on this coming Sunday it would be pleasant to hear that He not only took our place at Calvary but he made us a new creation; and now it is high time we live in light of this reality.  If we hear these words we may hear less of the droaning dirge ‘this memorial service’ and more about ‘the incomparable blessings of this new order of creation.’

Start the Isaiah study 

The Scripture: Isaiah 53

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejectedby men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.

 Start the Isaiah study

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering accredited B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees.  Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

Topics: Scripture Passage, Old Testament

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