Now if you would take your copies of God’s holy Word in your hands or you’ll find a copy of the Scriptures in the pocket in the pew in front of you, do take one and turn to page 613 to Isaiah chapter 52 at verse 13. Isaiah 52 at verse 13. Before we read, would you bow your heads with me as we ask for God to help us understand the Bible. Let us pray.
Lord, here in this passage You turn the diamond of the person and work of Jesus before us so that every facet of His self-giving love might shine with beauty and glory and radiance. We simply pray that You would send the Holy Spirit to us that we might see and stand in awe, that our hearts might be melted in gratitude and praise for Jesus, that our consciences might be pricked as we see again the sin that nailed Him to the tree, that grief might be generated and Gospel longing for the nations that still walk in darkness and yet need to see the great light of the Lord Jesus Christ. So come, wield Your Word in our hearts we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Isaiah 52 at verse 13. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.
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 rejected by 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 wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes 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. 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. 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. 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.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word.
Beholding the Suffering Servant of Isaiah: The Lord Jesus Christ
We are continuing in our studies of Isaiah’s great servant song, the song of the suffering servant. We’ve just read it together – Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12. You will remember that the passage divides into five portions. The servant succeeds, first of all in 52:13-15, then the servant scorned in 53:1-3, the thirdly the servant sacrificed in verses 4 to 6, the servant stricken, 7-9, and the servant satisfied, 10-12. Last time we looked at the first section, 52:13-15, the servant succeeds. The whole song opens, remember, by fixing our attention on Jesus – “Behold, my servant.” And it fixes our attention on Jesus not first as the great figure of suffering and sorrow crucified for us, but rather as our victorious and successful King. “Behold, my servant shall act wisely. He will succeed. He shall prosper.” And we saw that the speaker in this opening section of the song was none other than God the Father Himself. It is He who calls us to behold, to look intently, to give all our attention to the person of His servant, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I. The Unbelief of the World confronted with the Message of Christ
But as tonight we move into the first section of chapter 53, I want you to notice a dramatic change. It is a change first in speaker and subject matter. There’s also a change, secondly, in tone and atmosphere. You see that in the text? Isaiah 53:1-3. The speaker is not now God the Father. Who is speaking now? “Who has believed what he has heard from us? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” It is Isaiah the prophet, Isaiah the preacher who is speaking here. “I’ve been preaching,” he says. “Has anyone believed my message? Who has believed our reports?” And the answer the prophet expects is a negative one. “Who has believed our message? Is anyone listening? Who will believe?” What is the answer? Although as we heard from Paul Taylor earlier, around the world today and across the ages there has been a glorious advance of the church of Jesus Christ, yet as a percentage of the total population of the planet, the kingdom of Jesus Christ remains small. “Who has believed our reports?” Many there are, on every hand, that reject the good news about Jesus Christ. And that, sadly, is the theme of these opening three verses. The unbelief of the world confronted with the message of Jesus Christ.
Just as verse 13 of chapter 52 provides, if you like, the text that the first section expounds, so verse 1 of chapter 53 provides the theme for this new section. “Who has believed what he has heard from us?” That’s the message; that’s the theme the prophet will be meditating upon – the unbelief of the world when confronted with the message of the crucified servant of the Lord. And I want you to see immediately that in framing it as a rhetorical question rather than a cold proposition, the prophet intends for us to feel some of his emotion as a Gospel preacher. He’s not telling us a cold proposition about the rejection of the world of the Gospel message, it is rather a plaintiff cry, “Who has believed? Is my message getting through at all? Will anyone respond?” There’s heartache here. There are tears in his eyes as he asks this question. He is overcome and distraught at the reaction of the world. He is like the Lord Jesus in Matthew 19:41 when He drew near and He saw the city of Jerusalem He wept over it saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace but now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus wept over the rejection of the people. And he reminds us too of the apostle Paul who quotes this verse, Isaiah’s rhetorical question from this very passage to explain the tragic unbelief of Israel in Romans 10:16. But that chapter, Romans 10, opens with Paul’s own expression of heartache and longing. Romans 10 verse 1, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they might be saved.” There ought to be a Gospel ache, a Gospel ache, a heartbroken posture of the longing in the hearts of all who love the good news when we look out over a world that largely rejects and denies it. There should be nothing so grievous to a child of God than the rejection of the world of the only avenue for peace and grace and deliverance and mercy available to human beings. It ought to break our hearts. There is something terribly wrong if there is no Gospel ache, no grief, if we do not cry with Isaiah, “Who has believed?” if there are no tears like the tears of our Savior, if we do not cry out with Paul, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved.”
Living in the Gap
Really the contrast with the closing verse of the previous chapter could not be more stark, could it? Do you see the contrast between this new section beginning in verse 1 of 53 and the way the previous section in verse 15 of 52 concludes? In 52:13-15, remember, the theme was the absolute victory of Jesus Christ. And there we heard God the Father tell of a day when His servant would gather under His reign kings and many nations by His might word. A day will come when the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. A day will come when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. That day will come but that is not where we live right now. Now are the days when we cry, “Who has believed our report and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” We are preaching, and though some believe, many remain unchanged. We’re witnessing, and so many they smile and they nod politely and they carry on regardless. We send missionaries and church planters and their efforts, heroic sometimes, meet with resistance, even hostility. “Who has believed our report?” We live in the gap between the perfect revelation of the victory of King Jesus that awaits His final appearing and the present, slow, quiet, almost unnoticed pace of the advancement of His kingdom.
A Cause for Grief and Gospel-Longing
And it grieves Isaiah to see it and it ought to grieve us too. That is part of the design and purpose of these verses, the opening three verses of chapter 53. It is to awaken in us an ache and a longing for the honor and glory of the name of Christ among the nations, to see sinners brought to know Jesus, to be heartbroken over the unbelief of the mass of humanity all around us. Where are your tears? That ought to be the rebuke we hurl at our own hearts and consciences. They are going to hell apart from Jesus Christ. Only He can save them. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we may be saved but the name of Jesus. Only the Gospel can deliver them. Many who hear it reject it and that should grieve us and there are still so very many who have never heard it and that should grieve us even more.
Just to help fan into flame this Gospel ache and longing for the nations, let me give you some of the statistics if you’ll bear with me. There currently remain over 7,000 unreached people groups in the world today. Only 1% of North American Christian giving goes to sending missionaries to the unreached peoples of the world; 1%. One thousand three hundred ninety complete people groups in the 10/40 window, that’s that segment of the global population least reached by the Gospel, almost 1,400 complete people groups has no portion of the Scriptures in their own language. Eighty-five percent of the world’s Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, 85% do not even know a Christian. They don’t even know a Christian. “How will they call on Him in whom they have not believed and how are they to believe in Him whom they have not heard and how are they to hear without a preacher and how will they preach unless they are sent?” – Romans 10:14-15. There is a terrible scandal; it shocked Isaiah. It moved Christ to tears; it broke the heart of the apostle Paul. “Who has believed our report?” The Gospel is being preached but the world is still a dark place. There are many being lost forever who reject Christ and very many others who are perishing because they have never heard of Christ. Do you feel any of the bite of that scandal? Do you feel it? Are you moved by the darkness in which the world continues to live, in which our own city continues to live, so that you cry with the prophet, “Who has believed our report?”
And to fan still further the flames of that Gospel longing, that sense of scandal and urgency and grief over the unbelief of the world, Isaiah now outlines for us in the rest of the passage first reasons for the world’s unbelief, verse 2, and then the contours – he describes the world’s unbelief in verse 3. The reasons of the world’s unbelief; then the contours of the world’s unbelief.
II. The Reasons for the World’s Unbelief
Let’s think about the message of verse 2 first of all – the reasons for the world’s unbelief. There are three reasons listed here.
Rejected for His Weakness
First, the prophet sites the servant’s weakness; the servant’s weakness. Look at the text. Verse 2 – “For he grew up before him like a young plant.” Here is the servant of the Lord in his earthly beginnings, growing up before the Lord. Really in verses 2 and 3 we have a synopsis of the whole trajectory of Jesus’ earthly ministry from the cradle to the grave and verse 2 tells us how it all started. “He was like a young plant.” The emphasis here is on His vulnerability, His fragility. He is a sprouting seed, barely pushing through the soil. The world looks to see the mighty Eved Yahweh, the servant of the Lord who is high and lifted up and exalted before whom even the kings of the nations are silent as they hear the Gospel. The world looks to see the servant of the Lord and what it finds instead is only a tender, inconsequential shoot and it rejects Him and dismisses Him out of hand.
I was speaking to a dear African-American brother who was telling me recently about some of the challenges within his own community. He was explaining that there are some perspectives within the African-American community that believes that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not go far enough, that his Jesus was a weaklings and Dr. King’s movement was therefore incapable of providing the kind of empowerment and liberation that an oppressed minority really needed. If Jesus is a weakling then to follow Him is to be weak. Jesus, so the argument goes, leaves suffering people in their suffering. Who wants a Jesus like that? He is a tender young plant, weak, vulnerable, and therefore to be rejected. The world rejects Jesus for His weakness.
Rejected for His Origins
Then secondly, notice it rejects Jesus for His origins. Look at verse 2 again. “He is like a root out of dry ground.” That’s where He came from – arid, parched ground, an utterly improbable environment for the origins of the Messiah. You remember the incident in John 1:45-46 where Philip finds Nathaniel and says to him full of excitement, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. We’ve found him!” And Nathaniel is utterly unimpressed. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he said. In Acts 25 verse 5 Paul is on trial before Felix and the accusation made against Paul is that he is, “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” It’s a term of derision and contempt. “How foolish that you worship a Nazarene.” Or think about Matthew 13:55. This time the problem is not geography but genealogy; not the location Jesus came from but the family He belongs to. “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called, Mary? Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things? And they took offense at him.” He is, verse 2, “like a root out of dry ground.” They looked at His home and they looked at His family, they looked at His background, His context, His origins, and they wrote Him off.
What they didn’t realize and what we still so often miss is that it is precisely in His weakness and in His unostentatious beginnings and unpromising origins that Jesus is qualified to save us. Isaiah himself hints at that when he speaks about Jesus here as a shoot and a root. There’s a double meaning in verse 2. Earlier, back in chapter 11 verse 1, Isaiah said of the coming Savior, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” What the world sees as disqualifying marks, proofs that Jesus is inconsequential and unimportant, God calls the marks of the only one who can possibly hope to save us, one who enters into the sufferings and the sorrows of His people that He might rescue us and redeem us and set us free. So they reject Jesus for His weakness and they reject Jesus for His origins.
Rejected for His Appearance
And then thirdly notice they reject Jesus for His appearance, for the way He looks. Verse 2 again, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him.” He was an altogether, ordinary looking man. There was no glamour about His person, no halo around His head. None of the outward displays of power or influence attended His coming. When the magi arrived at His place of birth, where did they find the King of Kings? Lying in a manger, a feeding trough, amidst the stench and the noise of a stable. In John 8:56 the Pharisees estimated Jesus’ age to be nearer fifty than the thirty or so years He really lived. He was old before His time. He wore the affects of life and ministry with all the enormous burdens that entailed for Him in His physical appearance. He was haggard and care-worn. I was listening to the radio the other day and the host of the show proposed a question for callers to discuss. The question is, “What makes a true friend?” That’s a great question. What makes a true friend? Before he took any calls, however, he offered his own answer, a comment of His own. This is what the host said. “I want all my friends to be gorgeous. I want all my friends to be gorgeous.” That is the society we live in. We evaluate the potency and the influence of others so often based on their appearance. Does he look the part? Does her face fit? Jesus’ face didn’t fit. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” Your eyes would glide right over Him – Mr. Ordinary; Mr. Every-man. You couldn’t pick Him out of a crowd. “No beauty that we should desire him.” He wasn’t gorgeous.
And actually it may be terribly important for someone here tonight to know that God’s King, the Savior of sinners, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, grew up unlovely, plain, passed over, turned from because His face didn’t fit. There is a terrible pressure today, isn’t there, to focus on appearances. Some of you younger people know how that feels. You’ve been excluded because your face doesn’t fit; you don’t look right. That’s what matters, our culture says. Forget smart; beautiful wins. Forget virtuous; gorgeous gets ahead. Forget purity; appearance is all that matters. That is not God’s measurement of value. “Behold, my servant,” He says. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him.” Jesus is not one of the glitterati. He isn’t one of the gorgeous people. He’s one of us. Some of you are more lovely than others, of course, but Jesus is ordinary. One of us. That’s not a reason to reject Him, whatever the world says. That is a reason to run to Him. You can go to Him. You can cast your cares on Him. The reason the world rejects Him is the great reason we need Him. He knows. He’s one of us. The reasons for the world’s unbelief.
III. The Contours of the World’s Unbelief
And then notice what we learn here about the contours, the shape of that unbelief. Look at verse 3 with me please. Here we’re led down into the darkness of our Savior’s abandonment. It is sacred ground and almost the only thing we can do is follow Isaiah’s descriptions and marvel. All this for us. All this for me. Look at the text. “He was,” verse 3, “despised.” It’s a word that’s repeated again at the end of the verse. This is the dominant note. It’s not that He was met with shrugging indifference. It is, rather, that He was actively, vigorously, vocally dismissed and denounced with sneering contempt. And when Isaiah says He was rejected by men the words are literally, “He was without men; He was lacking in men; Men ceased from Him.” That is to say he was alone. One by one, even the disciples deserted Him, didn’t they? Judas betrayed Him; Peter denied Him. They all fled from Him until in the darkness even God the Father turned His face away from His Son so that Jesus would cry out in dereliction, “My God, My God! What have You forsaken Me?” That’s Jesus – forsaken, rejected, despised, the supreme outsider.
A Man Reckoned as Worthless
And he was, Isaiah tells us, “a man of sorrows.” That’s a Hebrew idiom. It doesn’t simply mean that He knew what it was like to be sad. It means sorrow characterized Him. Here’s a man whose humanity has been penetrated and absorbed with sorrow. He is “acquainted with grief.” Grief is not an occasional, unwelcome visitor in His life like some migratory predator just passing through. Grief, rather, is the customary inhabitant of His soul. “As one from whom men hide their faces.” People shunned Him. They ran and hid from Him rather than to be near Him. “And we esteemed him not.” It’s an accounting word, esteemed. Here at last is the final verdict. Everything has been carefully written into the accounting ledger; ever feature of Jesus’ person the world’s perception is capable of seeing has been noted and weighed – His weakness, His origins, His appearance. It has all been tallied up and the great calculation of His worth arrived at. Here is the conclusion. Here is what the world thinks about Jesus – He is worth nothing; nothing. “We esteemed him not.” Inconsequential, unimportant, worthless.
The Heart-Breaking Unbelief of the World
It’s an awful description but Isaiah, you know, is doing more here than simply describing the unbelief of the world with its reasons and its reactions. What he’s doing really is indicting the unbelief of the world. “To see the servant and find no beauty in Him,” says Alec Motyer, “reveals the bankruptcy of human emotions.” To be one with those who despise Him and then reject Him exposes the misguidedness of the human will. To appraise Him and conclude that He is nothing condemns our minds as corrupted by and participants in our sinfulness. Thus every aspect of human nature is inadequate. Every avenue along which by nature we might arrive at the truth and respond to God is closed. Nothing but divine revelation can make the servant known to us and can draw us to Him. There is no calculus that unaided human reason can employ that will arrive at saving conclusions about Jesus Christ. None. If today you are not a Christian you cannot find the right computation that will make sense of it all and reason your way to glory. There is no rationalized solution to the human predicament. In fact, we will always suppress the truth in unrighteousness and we will always exchange the truth of God for a lie. We will turn our faces from Him and we will esteem Him not. That’s why Isaiah laments so bitterly in verse 1, “Who has believed our report?” That’s why we should lament. Nothing should break our hearts like the unbelief of the world.
Gospel Power and Hope
But amidst our lamentation there ought not to be despair. Did you notice the plurals that run all the way through these three verses? Verse 2, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” “No beauty that we should desire him,” verse 3. “He was despised and we esteemed him not.” Who is speaking? It’s the same one who cries in anguish, “Who has believed our report?” Isaiah himself was once among the mocking voices and the scornful crowds, wasn’t he? Isaiah himself once thought of Jesus like this. Isaiah himself was once numbered amongst the despisers of God’s servant who esteemed Him not. But the arm of the Lord was revealed to him. He at least believed the message. The sin and unbelief of the world around us should make us grieve. It should make us grieve, but it should not make us stop preaching Christ. “Who has believed what he has heard from us? I’m still preaching,” Isaiah says. How is he able to go on seeing the terrible rejection of humanity of the Gospel message? He knows he was once like them and somehow in the extraordinary sovereign mercy of God the message he heard awoke him to life and so trusting to the sovereignty of God he labors on, proclaiming the stricken, smitten, and afflicted servant of the Lord believing that God saves sinners.
We preach Christ crucified and God opens blind eyes. Isaiah himself can testify to that; so can many of you. The world around us rejects Jesus but you believe. You once were like them and the Gospel broke in and the Holy Spirit brought life and light and you were redeemed and brought to know the Savior. And so as you remember your own story, take courage, even when confronted with the unbelief and rejection of the world. The arm of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save. And so labor on and be a faithful witness and shine brightly as stars in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, holding forth the Word of life knowing as you preach the foolishness of the Gospel God will save some and the kingdom of Jesus Christ will advance, slowly, quietly, mysteriously to be sure, all too slowly, grievously slowly, yet it will advance nevertheless. So take heart. Mourn and grieve over the unbelief of the world but don’t let it paralyze you. Instead, let it fuel your zeal to make Christ known. Think about the 85% of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists who don’t even know a Christian. Doesn’t that light a fire under you to be an instrument that God might be pleased to use by your giving and praying and even by your going to bring the unsearchable riches of Christ to the nations?
May the Lord be pleased to bless us and use us to that great end. Let us pray.
O Lord our God, we bless You for Jesus, for the Gospel of grace that is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. We are often discouraged. We look around and we see a world that rejects the message, that despises and esteems not Your servant. Help us not to forget that like Isaiah himself we too once called out among the scoffers and yet the Lord has saves us in His grace and therefore He might use us to be the human instrument of bringing salvation by grace to others. Make us bold witnesses, we pray, and bless the Word of God to our hearts and through us to many others that the people who walk in darkness might yet still see a great light. In Jesus’ name, amen.
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