“Christ the Willing Victim” Isaiah 53:1-12 April 20, 1997
We considered, the last two Lord’s Days, the great three-verse stanza that serves as the middle of the poem, this fourth of Isaiah’s “songs of the servant.” Verses 4-6 state the fact and the meaning of the Servant’s death. It was, we read here, as elsewhere in the Bible, a most personal substitution of Christ for his people in which he bore in their place the penalty of their sins and so satisfied the demands of divine justice in their place.
The following stanza, vv. 7-9, adds the extraordinarily important fact, only intimated or suggested so far, that this death was the Servant’s own act, a surrender of himself. Here we view the death described and explained in vv. 4-6 from the point of view of the Servant’s own self-consciousness. The uninstructed and undiscerning human eye, as we read in v. 4, saw his death as the result of divine judgment upon him for something that he had done. The instructed eye of faith, as in vv. 5-6, sees him suffering the wrath of God not for his sins but for ours. But, still, we see him, in these verses, as acted upon, not as the actor.
But vv. 7-9 take us a step further and place us in a position to see the cross and the death of Christ as his own act, — not only as the act of God the Father who sent his Son to die but as that which the Son willingly suffered for our sakes. Here, already 700 years before his birth, as later in the Gospel accounts themselves, we see a Christ who is by no means caught up in a web of events over which he had no control. As he said to his disciples, in predicting his death, “no one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord.” Here we enter the Savior’s own self-consciousness and experience. Nothing simply happens to him; he brings it all upon himself.
The Gospels, of course, show us how he did this in great detail: how, step by step, he orchestrated the events that led inexorably to his crucifixion and how he purposely placed himself in the hands of his enemies when all along it would have been entirely possible for him to avoid the catastrophe of the cross. Here, we are given one particular indication of his active acceptance of his death, one part of that orchestration of events that amounted to his laying down of his own life for us. In v. 7 we read that though the charges against him were unjust, though it was by oppression, that is, by injustice that he was condemned to death, he made no defense, he sought no redress, he neither answered the trumped up and ridiculous charges that were made against him — accused of crimes when, in fact, he had not even committed a sin in all his life — nor appealed his death sentence. “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,” precisely because at that moment he chose to be a lamb and not the Lion of Judah he also was. As Paul will much later put it, in his commentary on Isaiah 53 in Philippians 2, “he humbled himself…”
And so, when we read in v. 10 that it was “the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering…” we cannot understand, as folk have sometimes thought, that there was some dissonance in the divine mind, some difference of attitude between God the Father and God the Son regarding the salvation of the people of God. No, when Jesus came into the world, the Scripture says, he came saying to his Father, “I delight to do your will, O my God.”
So, if it was the Father’s will to crush him, as it was, it was just as much the Son’s will to be crushed. If it was the Father’s will to send his Son to die for the sins of his people, it was just as much the Son’s will to die. If the Father was so constrained by love for his people that he sacrificed his Son to save them, no less so was the Son constrained by that same love to surrender himself to death for their sins that we might have everlasting life. Nothing in this sacred history overtakes the Lord Christ, all is planned, all is decided, all is willingly suffered for our sakes. As Peter would so daringly put it later in one of his prayers to God,
“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand would happen.” [Acts 4:27-28]
But all of this only presents more starkly the great problem that so many people nowadays profess to find in the Christian Gospel. If all this happened just as the Father and the Son planned for it to happen, it all seems to them so bloody and gory and violent. This problem surfaced almost immediately, if you remember. The message of the cross was foolishness to the Gentiles and a scandal to the Jews, Paul wrote, and he wrote from his own experience as one who preached the gospel to both peoples. Neither of them, Jew nor Gentile, could see how salvation could come from the execution of even an exceptional man on a cross and, much more, each of them was offended by the very notion of such a salvation. For them, salvation belonged to the realm of the ethical and the intellectual — right thinking and right living is what redeems a man — not blood and violence and death.
Part of the offense, we have already said, a large part, comes from the fact that men think far, far more highly of themselves than they ought to think and it offends their pride to be told that such desperate measures would be necessary to deliver them from themselves. They are happy enough to hear that God is willing to offer them some help: spiritual wisdom and guidance, ethical instruction, a kindly willingness to overlook common faults, etc. But to say that nothing short of the incarnation of God the Son, his cruel and utterly unjust humiliation at the hands of his own creatures, and then his ignominious death on the cross would avail to satisfy for a man’s sins is to say that man is desperately wicked, completely incapable of rescuing himself, utterly dependent upon a titanic achievement of the grace and mercy of the living God. This human beings have never liked to hear. Most of them have never been willing to hear it. And that should not be difficult for anyone to understand who will be honest with himself or herself for just a single moment and admit how deeply you resent it when someone criticizes you for even a minor fault, how quickly you get your hackles up. Even we Christians, who have been schooled in the truth of human guilt and sinfulness and need, have a very great deal of difficulty admitting it when it concerns ourselves!
Now this objection to the Gospel is never put this way, of course. Nowadays we often hear that in the modern world it is impossible any longer to believe in such a theory of salvation, of substitutionary death, of atonement through blood, that is, through death — for that is what blood means in the Bible, life poured out, or death. This was the idea of more primitive times, we are told, but modern people have done with it, have got beyond it. But, of course, this is not true at all. The idea was not popular in Jesus’ day — the Jews themselves, with all the teaching about blood sacrifice and with all the continued practice of it had almost entirely abandoned the idea of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world, of salvation through sacrifice.
[That is why, by the way, the Pharisees triumphed eventually and why the Judaism that we have known through the ages is a Judaism derived from Pharisaism. When the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the legions of the Roman general Titus, there was no longer any possibility of blood sacrifice in Jewish worship. There was no altar, no temple where such a sacrifice could be made. But the Pharisees didn’t need such sacrifices. They had already long before constructed a doctrine of salvation that required no sacrifice for sin, but only repentance and obedience to the laws. The loss of the temple was unimportant. The Sadducees, who, by the way, didn’t believe in redemption by substitution either — they were the liberals of their day; didn’t believe in life after death, in angels, in much of anything supernatural –, but they were firmly attached culturally and traditionally to the temple, could not survive its loss and the Sadducees disappeared, until they reappeared in modern agnostic and atheistic Judaism.]
But that is an aside. The point I’m making is simply this. This doctrine of salvation by the substitutionary death of the Redeemer was no more popular in Jesus’ day than in ours and for the same reasons. And, fundamentally, people preferred in those days the same theory of salvation they prefer today: try to be good people and God will overlook your faults. In fact, we are often told that the whole notion of Christ’s death and resurrection stands in the way of modern man’s embracing the true meaning and significance of Christianity, viz. God’s love and mercy toward man. And it is not only those outside the church who make this claim. Many in the church today, more than I expect you think, take offense at the notion of penal substitutionary atonement, that, for us to be saved, the penalty of our sins had to be endured in our place by our substitute and that this is what Christ did on the cross.
In the early years of Covenant College and Seminary, when the largest salary was well under $10,000 a year and it was a struggle to meet every month’s payroll, a man offered the school a quarter of a million dollars, a sum far larger than the school had ever received in its history, if only they would remove Cowper’s hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins” from the college hymn book.
Many tell us today that the entire notion of pacifying God with a sacrifice, with the death of a substitute is a pagan notion and that modern people, good people, should have nothing to do with it. It reduces God, so they claim, to a kind of petulant deity that must be served his pound of flesh before he will extend himself for his creatures. But, of course, that is absurd. Here is the point of our text this morning! God himself makes this sacrifice! He didn’t ask us to make it, we couldn’t have in any case. He made it for us; he went to death in our place, and, as these verses remind us, he went willingly, lovingly to death for us, in our place. His justice may have required the penalty to be paid, but his love drove him to pay it himself.
But, still, it is worth our attending to this question, this problem, for a moment this morning, for it is certainly true that a great many people object to the entire notion of a salvation purchased at the cost of such a cruel and bloody death, a death required by God himself, even if the death is suffered by God incarnate himself.
Perhaps you can feel the force of this problem more easily if you put it in terms of OT ritual sacrifice, the animal sacrifices that prefigured and prophesied the death of The Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. It was through these sacrifices that the redemption that Christ purchased on the cross was mediated to believers long beforehand. Even we Christians can think ourselves in a strange world when we read the laws of the sacrifices or narratives of various moments in the history of Israel when, in commemoration of some great event, hundreds, even thousands of lambs, goats, and bulls were slaughtered, their blood poured and sprinkled over the great altar of the tabernacle and later the temple, the carcasses skinned, and the meat then roasted on the altar fire.
It was not so long ago that I had a Christian of many years ask me — clearly in some state of worry and uncertainty — about all of that blood and gore and for what reason there had to be so much of it in the life of God’s people through those thousands of years before Christ. It had come to seem so primitive, so brutal to her. And if you thought about it, you might come to think as she did. I once read an OT scholar who reminded his readers that a typical day at the Temple, in the middle of summer, what with all the bleating of the animals, terrified by the smell of blood, the draining of so much blood from so many carcasses, the butchering of so many animals — all under the hot summer sun — would have left no one with the polite and disinfected view of sacrifice that we have from our vantage point so far removed from it. It would have turned the stomach of anyone not entirely used to such a spectacle.
Alexander Whyte, in a sermon of his own, recollected a sermon he heard preached by the celebrated Alexander Stewart of Cromarty:
“We heard him, scarce a twelvemonth since, deliver a discourse of singular power on the sin-offering, as minutely described by the divine penman in Leviticus. He described the slaughtered animal — foul with dust and blood, its throat gashed across, its entrails laid open and steaming in its impurity to the sun — a vile and horrid thing, which no one could look on without disgust, nor touch without defilement. The picture appeared too vivid; its introduction too little in accordance with just taste. But this pulpit master knew what he was all the time doing. ‘And that,’ he said, as he pointed to the terrible picture, ‘this is SIN!’ By one stroke the intended effect was produced, and the rising disgust and horror transferred from the revolting material image to the great moral evil.” And, in like manner, This is the Lamb!…This is the Sacrifice! This is the Door! This is Emmanuel, God with us, and made sin for us.” [BC, III, pp. 265-266]
There is the point; there is the need for all of that death and gore, and, especially, the great death, the great violence, the great sacrifice — Christ suffering in our place. That is what sin is — and that is what it requires.
It never ceases to amaze me how the views of most men concerning salvation are so eerily disconnected from the world in which we live. We live in a world of violence and of death. And it has always been so as it is today. My Latin class is working its way through the history of the Roman republic and so has had to learn a large number of words that one might not expect to find in the basic vocabulary of a language course: treachery, killing, suicide, etc. But such is the history we are reading — a history of wars of conquest, of civil wars, of plots and intrigues leading to murder and suicide. And the history of the world has been no less violent in all the ages since nor today, where conflicts rage on every continent, where crime is a problem of immense proportion in many places, or where large numbers of people are kept docile and servile by the threat of violent reprisal. We can hardly claim, in our century — perhaps the most violent, the cruelest in the history of the world — that violence is not the reality of human life in this world.
When my sister Bronwyn was four years of age, she spent the night with family friends, who had a daughter her age as well as two other children. That very night, the husband and father of that family murdered his wife and three children, after putting my sister out on a sun porch, where she was found the next morning by my Father. Mass murder was still comparatively rare in America in 1954 and our missionaries in Japan read the account of the murders and my sister’s name in the Tokyo newspapers. They wouldn’t read it today, so common are such stories now.
We live in a violent world because we live in a sinful world. And, actually it is far worse than we suppose. Because the Lord teaches us that he regards hateful, spiteful, mean-spirited, cruel, envious, jealous, haughty thoughts toward others — spiritually violent thoughts, in other words — as sins of the same kind, if not the same degree, as assault and murder. And the world goes round every day — and even, alas the church, with such thoughts darting from one heart toward another, one heart wishing another away, delighting in the troubles and sorrows of another wishing another ill. A God who looks upon the heart, and who measures the heart, sees a far more violent world than we see, even when we face with some honesty the measure of hatred and cruelty that swirls around us every day.
Well, if Christ is going to be sin for us, the one thing that should not surprise us is that he suffered violence for it — that is what justice is, a balancing of the scales, like for like, a punishment that fits the crime. No wonder God required all of that animal sacrifice in that ancient epoch — lest anyone think that the redemption of sinners — sinners as inveterate and willing and constant and foul and violent as human beings are sinners — was going to be some polite and dainty work. Carrying that universe of cruelty and violence away was going to be someone’s very dirty business — and, because only One person could possibly do it, it was the exceedingly dirty business of the Son of God.
And here we find the nub of the matter. For if, by the grace of God, a man or woman should come face to face with his or her sins — really see them, measure them, reckon with them as the evils that they are, as the offenses against man but especially against God that they are, and if it once occurs to that man or that woman that those sins, — that selfishness, that violent envy, that indolence and laziness, that lust and impurity, that dishonesty, that indifference to others, that disinterest in God and in the life God has summoned men to live — I say if it once occurs to that man or woman that those sins are what God sees in and all through them — because after all, he is a holy God and a God of truth — then, in a moment of stunning clarity, that person will know that nothing less than an act as violent, and as horrific, and as titanic as God the Son going to death in a man’s place would ever be enough to rid him or her of these great and terrible sins.
I mentioned before William Cowper’s great hymn, “There is a Fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” A graphic and, it is true, a terrible image, if you once think about it. “Sinners plunged beneath that flood…”
But Cowper knew of what he spoke. He was a young man in terrible straits, raised in a Christian home but having rebelled, he now in his young adulthood was face to face with his sins. He was too honest a man and too thoughtful to find any refuge in the superficial thinking that most people use to keep such thoughts at bay. He was in deep distress and he knew that somehow he needed to be freed from the guilt of his sins. Nothing else mattered. He knew that he could do nothing himself — he was the sinner. And then, he tells us, one night in his room, in tremendous spiritual distress, pacing the room trying to find some relief, he sat down at his desk and opened the Bible. The first verse he came to was Romans 3:25 where Paul describes Jesus Christ as the propitiation for our sins — the sacrifice who turned away the divine wrath from us by bearing himself the penalty our sins deserved.
“Immediately,” he tells us, “the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement he had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the Gospel…. My eyes filled with tears and my voice was choked with transport. I could only look up to Heaven in silence, overwhelmed with love and wonder!” [Ella, pp. 90-91]
A man who knows what it will take to remove sins as great as our sins are, is a man who fully understands why nothing less than the death of the Son of God on the Cross would do; and that man knows — at least begins to know — what love it must have been that made Jesus Christ willing to undergo that cruel fate for such sinners as we are.
No wonder Cowper should write:
E’er since by faith I saw the stream thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.
Here is our answer to those who object to Christianity’s message of salvation through the suffering and death of Christ. Look around you and look within yourself –with an honest heart if you can– and you will see that no half-measures; no polite and antiseptic and dainty effort will take that sin away. Something terrible, something tragic, something somehow equal to all of this ugly and mountainous evil will be required — and that is what Christ has given us when he was made a guilt offering for us.
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!