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The Saving Servant of Jehovah
by Fred G. Zaspel

Words of Life!
Volume 5, Number 3 June-August 1994

The Book of Comfort

Chapters 40-66 of the prophecy of Isaiah are well known as "The Book of Comfort." This "title" is taken from statements such as in Isaiah 40:1 which introduces the theme: "`Comfort, yes, comfort My people!' Says your God. `Speak comfort to Jerusalem.'" And as you might expect, what follows is a graphic and exciting description of what God would do for his chosen people Israel.

This comfort which Isaiah announced was welcome news indeed, for just previously in his prophecy he had been announcing something very distressing -- Israel's captivity. Prospectively, Jerusalem had been wasted by the armies of Babylon, and the people of Israel had been uprooted and resettled as captives in a strange land.

And in this condition Israel is in all but total despair -- wondering, it seems, even if God could ever help them now.

So the comfort Isaiah announced was that their God would indeed come again to their aid. He is not like the so-called gods of their neighboring nations. He is not a "god" carved out of stone or wood. He is the living God who reigns supreme over all the events of history. He will not be frustrated by his people's plight. He is able to help. And He will.

Cyrus

At first it is a Persian king by the name of Cyrus whom Isaiah says the Lord will appoint and enable and cause to bring His people back to their homeland. Now, Cyrus hadn't been born yet. In fact, neither were his parents! But God announces ahead of time what He will do and how and by whom He will bring it about. And so it was, just as God had announced, some 150 years later the now famous Cyrus defeated Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return home.

One Greater Than Cyrus

But for all the joy and for all the greatness of the deliverance which Cyrus brought about, it is plainly obvious that the need of Israel was still greater than what Cyrus would bring. He brought them home, sure enough. But there was, after all, a reason for Israel's captivity. And simply put, that reason was Israel's sin. This is a familiar theme common to Israel's prophets.

And so in this "Book of Comfort" we find Isaiah leading us to see a greater deliverer who would come and bring about a greater rescue. He would deliver the people from that which caused their great calamities -- He would deliver them from their sin and bring them back to God.

This deliverer is referred to simply as "My Servant" -- the Servant of Jehovah. Isaiah devotes several portions of this "Book of Comfort" to the announcement and description of this Servant. Particularly important are the "Servant Songs" of Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12. These passages form the backbone of this "Book of Comfort." The comfort from God will come via His Servant. He will come and bring about a spiritual restoration.

The Servant's Work

Let's take just a sampling of Isaiah's description of what this Servant of the Lord will accomplish.

"He will bring forth justice"

(Isaiah 42:1)

The idea here seems to be that the Servant will come and right all that is wrong. Think in terms of social injustice, economic injustice, moral injustice, spiritual, physical, emotional -- injustice of whatever kind. He will make right whatever there is that is wrong.

"A bruised reed He will not break,

and smoking flax He will not quench.

(Isaiah 42:3-4).

Isaiah paints two pictures here. The first is of the banks of some body of water where someone has walked by and stepped on a reed and left it broken behind him -- a very common scene.

The other picture is of a lamp or candle whose wick is smoldering and all but gone out.

Both of these items -- broken reed and smoldering wick -- would seem to any of us to be worthless, good only for the trash. But the Servant of Jehovah, Isaiah says, will act differently. That which anyone else would think worthless He will come to restore.

Now Isaiah is not speaking literally of reeds and wicks. He is talking about people. His point, simply, is that the Servant will come and gently restore the fallen and the downcast and the oppressed.

"I will give you

as a covenant to the people"

(Isaiah 42:6)

Moses stood tall in Israel's history in that he was the mediator of God's covenant with Israel. This Servant, however, stands taller in that He will Himself be the covenant. The idea is that He will be the cause, the source, the dispenser of new covenanted promises and blessings.

"To open blind eyes

To bring out prisoners from the prison"

(Isaiah 42:7)

Plainly, Isaiah is announcing a deliverance of the greatest proportions. It is much more than political freedom.

"To bring Jacob back to God"

(Isaiah 49:5)

Again, it is deliverance from sin that is in view -- restoration to God.

"To speak a word in season"

to him who is weary

(Isaiah 50:4)

The picture is a beautiful one. The Servant comes and Himself speaks words of comfort and encouragement. That is to say, He will give comfort and rest to those who are weary from difficulty and oppression.

World-Wide Salvation!

In fact, all this work is to be done, not for Israel only, but for the Gentiles as well. The Servant "will bring forth justice to the Gentiles" (42:1). Indeed, God says to Him, "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob...I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth" (49:6).

The Servant's Success

And in all this the Servant, Isaiah emphasizes, will be eminently successful. This is the task to which Jehovah has called and chosen and anointed Him. He has pledged to faithfully uphold him and preserve Him. For the accomplishing of His mission He enjoys the full enduement of God's Spirit (42:1). Indeed, He will not fail or be discouraged till all that is assigned him is done (42:4).

God has pledged Himself to bring salvation. His Servant, Whom He appoints to the task, will be fully equipped and well able to succeed. God will save His people.

But How Will He Do It?

Still that question remains: How? How will the Servant deal with that fundamental problem of sin?

Slowly evolving in these Servant Songs is the notion of the great difficulty of the work which faces the Servant. Not only is the task a great one, but that He should turn out to be God's Servant is a surprising thing. That is, it does not at first seem that the one Who is the Servant could really be the Servant! In fact, there comes a point where by all outward indications He has "labored in vain and spent His strength for nothing" (49:4). Indeed, He will become the one "whom man despises, whom the nation abhors" (49:7). He will "give His back to those who strike Him, and His cheeks to those who pluck out the beard and His face to those who shame Him and spit on Him" (50:6).

This idea comes to the fore in the final Servant Song (52:13-53:12). The Servant is "highly exalted" yet "marred more than any man. . . . He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and known by grief." He is one who is "wounded, bruised, chastised" for sin, and who dies as a sinner among sinners, and who is put to open shame.

The Sin-Bearer

It is here in the fourth song that we learn the answers to all the questions. Here these seeming contradictory ideas are brought together. The suffering and death which the servant endures, He endures as a penal substitute! That is to say, He dies for sin, but not His own. He is the faithful Servant of Jehovah! He has no sin (50:5)! Yet he suffers for the sin of others, bearing their punishment. That is, He takes to Himself the judgment of God against sinners, and bears it all in their place.

Notice how many times over Isaiah emphasizes this in chapter 53. "He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.... He was wounded for our transgression, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.... The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.... For the transgression of my people He was stricken.... When You make Him a sin offering.... He shall bear their iniquities.... He bore the sin of many."

Isaiah could not be more plain. The Servant will bring about salvation by bearing the people's sin Himself. This is penal substitution. The "good news" which the Servant announces (52:7ff) is that of a salvation which is grounded in justice. The good news is not that God has somehow decided that their sin no longer matters. The good news is not that God has decided not to punish sin. The good news is that God's Servant will come to bear the punishment for sin in the place of His people. He will die, not merely in behalf of His people; He will die instead of them. Their sin. His death. And this death will satisfy for them the demands of God's justice against them.

This, then, is the Servant and His appointed task.

The Servant's Identity

Now we must ask, "Who is this Servant? What is His name?" You may recall that this was the portion of Scripture the Ethiopian official was reading in the desert when Philip came to him (Acts 8:26ff). The Ethiopian's question was exactly the same -- "Of whom does the prophet speak?" Luke, the writer of the book of Acts is careful to tell us that Philip, "beginning at the same Scripture, preached Jesus unto him."

But Philip was not the only one to interpret this portion of Isaiah in this way. In Acts 3:13ff Peter twice refers to Christ as "God's Servant" and gives what amounts to a perfect summary of Isaiah's Servant theology: He is exalted and crucified. And in First Peter 2:20ff his exhortation to patience under suffering is tantamount to an interpretive rendering of these Servant Songs.

In that early Christian prayer recorded in Acts 4, twice they refer to Jesus as "God's Servant."

And while Paul did not emphasize the term itself -- ministering as he did to Gentiles generally unfamiliar with the Jewish Scriptures -- He did emphasize the Servant theme. His "by the obedience of One [Jesus] many are made righteous" is a virtual quotation of Isaiah 53:11. And his great depiction of the self-humiliating servitude of Jesus Christ in Philippians 2:5ff, which again reflects his conviction that Isaiah's Servant of Jehovah is Jesus.

And on it goes, Matthew, Luke, John, Hebrews, John the Baptist -- they all with one voice announce that God's Servant has come, and He is Jesus.

How Did They Know?

But where are we to assume that they all learned this? Who told them that Jesus was the Servant?

Why, for one, they heard it from God Himself: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." These words, spoken from Heaven at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration are taken directly out of Isaiah 42:1.

But there is more. Our Lord Jesus Himself said, "I came not to be served but to serve, and to give my life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:28). This entire statement is taken from Isaiah 53. Moreover, especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks repeatedly of Himself in terms of "doing the father's work" and so on. He speaks also of "drinking the cup of the Father's wrath." Against what other background but Isaiah 53 did He intend for His disciples to understand that? And at one point Jesus quotes directly from Isaiah 53:12 ("He was numbered among the transgressors") and then as plainly as you please announces that "this which is written of me must still be accomplished in me" (Luke 22:37).

Still there is more. Isaiah says of the Servant that He will speak comforting words to weary. It is difficult not to remember this when we hear Jesus saying, "Come unto me, all you who are wearied and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

And then there was that dramatic moment in the Nazareth Synagogue recorded in Luke 4:14ff, when Jesus read of Isaiah's Servant and boldly announces, "Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

We are left simply to say, "Why, the New Testament writers and early Christian preachers learned all this from Jesus Himself! He was the one who taught them to think of Him while reading of Jehovah's Servant. And we say, then, that they have it on good authority.

But, if that were not enough, I would challenge anyone to consider the things that are said about the Servant carefully. Recall that He is the One Who delights Jehovah, the One Who never fails to accomplish Jehovah's will, the one who was to come and establish justice, the one who is the light to the Gentiles and the covenant for the people of Israel. Recall also that He is the One in Whom Jehovah will be glorified, the one who says to the prisoners in dungeons, "Go forth!" and by His saying it they are free. Recall all these things, and then ask yourself, "Who else could this be but Jesus? Who else can say, `The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious'?" And who else could offer to God an acceptable guilt offering on behalf of so many others? Of whom else could it be said, that "By his stripes we are healed"? Of what other faithful servant could it be said, that "It pleased the Lord to bruise Him"? Of what other man could we say, when speaking of his death, that "He shall prolong His days"?

I say it is patently obvious that there is no other man in history of whom these things could be said but Jesus Christ. Nor could there be.

What's more, given the infinite value of the Servant's sacrifice, and given His sinless character and unsurpassed power, and His close association with Jehovah and His Spirit, we are forced to see that this man is much more than man. He is the God-Man. And once more, if this not Jesus then it is no one, and the prophecy itself is a mere wishful dream.

It is for good reason that the Christian Church has since its beginning read these words about the Servant understanding them as speaking of Jesus. Indeed, the older Jewish rabbis commonly interpreted these as referring to the Messiah -- that is, until the dawn of the Christian era when it was showed them how precisely and accurately they speak to Jesus.

It is not enough, at this point in history to read Isaiah's prophecy of the Servant and say, "God has prepared a Servant Who will come and bring salvation." No. We see it better than that. We read and say, "God has sent His Servant to save, and He is Jesus."

Summary & Conclusion

Much, much more could be said of all this. Perhaps we will continue the study next time. But for now let's consider just a few implications.

First, think what this all tells us about ourselves. Why must God send His Servant? Why must He suffer so? What made all this necessary? Clearly, whatever the wonderful results, this mission of the Servant was not an enjoyable one! So why was it necessary?

It is clear, isn't it, that without this saving mission of the Servant we are lost. It was necessary for Him to be punished if we were to go free. Divine justice must be satisfied. And if we would be exempt from it, an acceptable substitute must be found.

All this is to say, we are by ourselves in one desperate condition. We need someone else to save us.

But think also what this tells us of the Lord Jesus. Could there be anyone more desirable? And does not all this tell us how important it is for us to know Him? It surely tells us what a worthy object of our faith He is, but more than that it tells us that we must trust ourselves to Him! He is the saving Servant, and without Him we will surely perish. He is the One Whom we need.

Let me, then, put the question to you personally. In what are you trusting for salvation? Did you hope to make it somehow apart from God's saving Servant? It is an impossible dream, for "There is no other name under heaven whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).