Today is Palm Sunday, Christendom’s worldwide celebration of the triumphal entry of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem, just days before he would be crucified and a week before he would rise again from the dead. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week which, in common usage encompasses a week and a day, including as it does Easter Sunday, technically not the end of the week that began on Palm Sunday but the beginning of the following week.
The Lord’s triumphal entry was the apex of his popularity, the demonstration of how much excitement he had engendered in the Jewish population of Galilee and Judea. His works of power in particular, his miracles (not least the very public raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead just days before), had unleashed a great rush of pent-up emotion among the Jewish people, a people in great need of hope and primed to welcome a conquering hero. Their joyous welcome of Jesus, their affording him the honors of a king entering his capital, was certainly proof that they expected great things of this man. But Palm Sunday poses the inevitable question: how could such wild enthusiasm have come to nothing so quickly? How could the religious authorities, so long afraid of acting against Jesus for fear of provoking the people’s fury, have got away with arresting the man and urging his execution upon the Roman governor? After the enthusiasm of Sunday, why was there not rioting in the streets on Friday afternoon? The question is fundamental to any right understanding of the Bible’s teaching about Jesus and, for that matter, to any right understanding of the Christian view of human life. And that being so, it is hardly surprising that this very question was anticipated in the prophesies made about Jesus long before his appearance in the world. Centuries before Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the prophets both predicted that the Messiah would be rejected by his own people and explained why. And so our text this morning.
This is, as you know, the last and the most famous of Isaiah’s four servant songs, his extensive prophesies of the coming servant of the Lord who would reconcile rebellious Israel to God and bring salvation to people from every nation on earth. Taking the four songs together – from chapter 42, scattered through the chapters between 42 and chapter 53 – we learn that this servant would be the Lord’s chosen one, a person who would receive remarkable endowments from God, who would himself be without sin, who would be both identified with and distinguished from God, and who would fulfill in himself the offices of a prophet – proclaiming the truth about God and man – a priest, making sacrifice for our sins, a sacrifice in which he is himself was to be the sacrificial victim – and a king, conquering the enemies of the people of God and establishing peace on earth. In other words, in these four servant songs Isaiah painted a detailed portrait of the person, the life, and the work of Jesus Christ seven hundred years before his birth. This last servant song is perhaps the most specific of them all concerning the life and work of the coming savior. That explains why scholars have counted fully 46 references or allusions to this last servant song in the New Testament!
v.13 Elsewhere in Isaiah “high and lifted up” is a description of God himself, never a description of a mere man. A dramatic statement to make at the beginning of the description of someone who will be shown very clearly to have lived the life of a man!
v.14 “Many” is a loaded theological term in Isaiah and in his servant songs. It appears four times in this song. It seems to be a synonym for the elect of God, the people whom the servant of the Lord will reconcile to God. That company will be very great – hence “many” – but it won’t be everyone, hence “many.”
v.15 As elsewhere in Isaiah the Messiah will not only bring salvation to the Jews but to all the peoples of the world. “Sprinkle” harks back to the cleansing or purifying rituals of the Levitical law.
“Shut their mouths” is an expression of awe and wonder. These kings will eventually stand in reverent silence before him just as in the previous verse many had once thought of him with disgust. Again, typical of OT prophecies of the coming of the Lord, time is telescoped. The disgust comes first, the wonder – at least the wonder of the whole world – comes later.
v.1 “Arm of the Lord” is a periphrasis, a round-about way of identifying the servant himself. In 51:9 the “arm of the Lord” is the Lord. So Isaiah is saying, by means of a rhetorical question, that few will recognize the Lord when he comes among them.
v.6 We won’t read the entire prophecy this morning, but as the description continues it becomes only more obvious that this prophecy is the ultimate Cinderella’s slipper. There is only one person in all of human history, Jesus Christ, who fits this description. And he fits it to a “T.” One famous scholar wrote that the 53rd chapter of Isaiah reads as if it had been written beneath the cross of Calvary. [Delitzsch]
As I said, the Lord was rejected by his people. There was certainly that about him that created a great stir. His miracles, his commanding presence, his teaching – so unlike the pettifogging of the scribes, his teaching cut to the heart and laid bare the essential issues of life – his kindness to the poor and outcasts among the people gained him a great following and created what we would nowadays call a “buzz.” What would the man do next? And could this be the one of whom the prophets spoke? But his popular acclaim came to nothing. It fizzled so fast that his execution produced no public outcry, no rioting in the streets, no public calls for the resignations or the ousters of the men responsible.
And unless you can explain that, unless you know why such enthusiasm cooled so quickly and so completely you cannot understand the human predicament or God’s way of salvation. If you can answer this question – why people turned on Jesus so easily and so quickly after their initial enthusiasm – you will understand all mysteries! And so it was that long before Jesus came into the world the prophet Isaiah was given to say that few would believe the truth about Jesus, few would find in him the provision of God for the salvation of mankind, and few would think him crucial to the eternal destiny of every single human being. Why would they reject a man who could do what he did and teach as he taught and whose life was as good as his?
Why do so many ignore Jesus of Nazareth today? After all, great multitudes have at least some idea of what Christians say about him: who he is and what he did. But they can hardly be bothered even seriously to examine the evidence. Why was it so in his day and why is it so in ours? How do we explain what one older commentator called “the rarity and scarcity of believing the gospel and receiving Jesus Christ”? [Durham] Well, Isaiah explained that 700 years before Christ.
The reason is, as Isaiah tells us in 52:14, in regard to the end of his life, and again in 53:2, in regard to the whole of his life, the Lord Jesus was unimpressive where people most expected him to be impressive. He did not wow them in the way in which they wanted and expected to be wowed by the hero God would send them. He was, in the first place, simply too ordinary a man. No matinee good looks, no commanding physical presence. He looked like a small-town carpenter, which is, after all, what he was. And so when his enemies came for him it apparently didn’t surprise the people that they dispatched him with little trouble. The miracle worker was, at the last, powerless to prevent his own execution and the total failure of his grand strategy, whatever that might have been. A man hanging on a cross, life leaking out of him, in terrible pain, naked or mostly naked and utterly humiliated in public, does not strike human beings as someone who is the key to human existence and our hope for eternity. In other words, the only reason they loved him when he entered Jerusalem on that long ago Palm Sunday was they thought he was someone else and as soon as they realized he wasn’t, they lost interest. They loved him for his miracles, but once he was hung up on a cross, any hope of more miracles was lost and so too their interest in him. They had loved him not for what he had come into the world to do but for the works that were, in effect, a sideshow, meant only to confirm that he was sent from God.
This is what Isaiah said would be the case. We are, after all, talking about the one who, as here in v. 13, is God’s servant! That servant, Isaiah wrote, would be “despised and rejected by men,” someone from whom men would “hide their faces,” a man they would not esteem or admire, at least not when push came to shove. The very one who would someday “sprinkle many nations” and who would bear our sins and carry our sorrows would be someone who seemed to most folk a small man, and a failure at that!
The problem was, you see, that he really was a servant. No one looks up to a servant; certainly in the ancient world no one looked up to a servant. Many of you have watched Downtown Abbey to its recent conclusion and were reminded again how recently in western society there were people who worked as servants, were identified as servants, belonged to a class of servants, and as such were, in the nature of the case, even in their own eyes, unimpressive and comparatively unimportant people, people who lived and worked behind the scenes, people who certainly were not movers and shakers. They were small people, living small lives. Useful in their way, but of no great consequence. And here that term with that lowly connotation is used for the Messiah, the coming prophet, priest, and king.
In Paul’s commentary on this servant song in Philippians 2 he made a point of reminding us that when the Son of God came from heaven, he took the form of a servant. Paul doesn’t mean that Jesus Christ only looked like a servant, or had the outward appearance of a servant but wasn’t really a servant. He was using the term “form” as it was used in Greek philosophy and in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that Paul usually used in writing to his Gentile churches. “Form” in this usage, meant the real nature of a thing, the essential quality of a thing. In this case it meant that Jesus really was a servant – indeed, he was a servant par excellence – even though, as Paul had already said, and as Isaiah has said here, he also had the form or the essential quality of God. A servant who was “high and lifted up,” and who was himself the “arm of the Lord.” We have here the mystery of the incarnation, of God becoming man, described 700 years before the incarnation, before God became man in Jesus Christ.
As a servant, of course, he had been given an assignment. That is what a servant does: he does what he is told; he does the will of his master. Jesus too, as a servant came to do the bidding of his Father. The New Testament rings the changes on the fact that the Lord Jesus came to do his Father’s will. He himself made a point of saying many times over that his Father had sent him into the world with work to do. In his great prayer to his Father in John 17, the night before his crucifixion, he said to his Father, “I have finished the work that you gave me to do.”
As a servant Jesus assumed a servant’s place. That became the public perception of him; he wasn’t the master they were looking for. Now for human beings there is nothing remarkable about that. Most human beings are not great as the world counts greatness. They aren’t powerful, influential, famous, or important to great numbers of people. In fact, most human beings are even known by name only to a small number of people. But for Jesus this was remarkable because as Isaiah prophesied and as the New Testament records, Jesus was not only man, he was God; he was not only a servant, he was the maker of heaven and earth; he was not only a man on a mission, he was the sovereign ruler of the universe. For this one to become a servant was to travel downwards an impossibly long distance! If the nations, as Isaiah once said, are in God’s eyes a drop in the bucket, what must have happened and for what reason did it happen that this great God became, far from a conquering king, simply one individual human being – and not a particularly impressive one at that; a man from an insignificant village, a village whose name cannot be found in any written document before the New Testament itself – who lived most of his life in a backwater of the Roman empire? Jesus was not only really a servant, he was the least likely person in the universe ever to be a servant! Isaiah says as much here in language that any careful reader of his prophecy can hardly misunderstand. The one who shall be “high and lifted up…and exalted” – a description that belongs to God – is the very one who had no form or majesty that we should desire him. The emissary of God himself, who was God himself, was despised and rejected by men. God had so completely hidden himself in Jesus by becoming such a servant that no one saw the maker of heaven and earth when he was standing before them.
That God himself should have become a servant, a servant of God and of God’s people, is something so mysterious, so remarkable, so impossible for us to grasp that even some of the finest Christian theologians have often stumbled over what Isaiah says here and what the New Testament says over and over again. They have imagined that because Jesus was God, was high and lifted up, because he was the arm of the Lord, he could not have been fully and completely a servant, a man subject to invisibility, to the humiliations eventually visited upon him by his own people. He could not have traveled that far down; he could not have gone that low!
Hilary of Poitiers, one of the most eminent of the early fathers of the church, taught that Christ’s body was not subject to pain, nor his soul to fear. His fear of death in the Garden of Gethsemane, Hilary thought, must have been only his concern for his disciples. When he was crucified, Hilary thought, when the nails were driven into his hands and the spear thrust into his side, it was like what happens when a dart pierces the water or an arrow pierces the air. The nails and spear, in other words, retained their power to pierce, but it was not in the nature of Christ’s body to be pierced. And so it was during his life with hunger or thirst and sorrow. Even when he took food and drink he was simply accommodating himself to custom, not actually satisfying the needs of his body. [In Bruce, Humiliation of Christ, 237-238] And even John of Damascus, one of the greatest of early Christian theologians, wrote that Christ “repelled and dissipated the assaults of the enemy like smoke.” [Bruce, 268] But that is exactly the wrong idea, utterly contrary to what Isaiah says here.
Isaiah says that Jesus would be a man of sorrows, not simply a man who looked like he was sad. He would be wounded and he would be crushed. Indeed, as we read in the first servant song, Jesus Christ was so much a man, so subject to the pains and sorrows and humiliations of human life that God had to uphold him in order to enable him to fulfill his mission. To finish his work of saving us the Lord Jesus needed a companion and that companion was the Holy Spirit. In the first servant song, in Isa. 42:1 we read that God put his Spirit upon the servant. And so we read again and again in the Gospels that it was by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was conceived, by the Spirit that he grew to manhood, by the Spirit that he resisted the Devil, by the Spirit that he preached the gospel and performed miracles, by the Spirit that he cast out demons, by the Spirit that he went to the cross, and by the Spirit that he rose from the dead. What a mystery this is, that the Son of God became so much a man and a servant and was so accordingly so weak that only with divine help and only with the help of the Holy Spirit at every moment of every day and every night could he do the work he had been sent into the world to do; to endure the suffering and sorrows of his earthly life and complete the mission for which he had come into the world.
So the Lord Christ was a servant, not only because he was sent by his Master to fulfill an assignment but because, God that he was, he lowered himself so far in his incarnation that he became so completely a man and so ordinary a man that he could never have completed his mission without the constant attendance and assistance of the Holy Spirit. No one expected this of the hero they were waiting for! In fact, even those who believed in him had no idea about this!
Here was and here is the great problem that people have with Jesus Christ. They weren’t expecting a servant; they don’t want a servant. They do not think they need a servant. Oh, they’d be happy to have a servant tidy up behind them and make life easier for them, but they aren’t about to entrust their lives to God’s errand boy, someone who himself required the constant help and support of the Spirit of God. Certainly that is not what the Jews were expecting or hoping for on that first Palm Sunday. They wanted someone who would be a conquering king who would lead them from victory to victory over the Romans. They weren’t looking for someone who couldn’t keep himself from being executed; they were looking for someone who would fry his would-be executioners on the spot!
What Isaiah tells us here by way of prediction long beforehand is that the Jews rejected Jesus because he didn’t meet their expectations.
The Jewish scholar, S.W. Baron, in his monumental Social and Religious History of the Jews, provides a detailed account of the views that Jews in the first century entertained about the Messiah who was to come. The Zealots, the activists later turned guerrillas, expected a Savior to appear, sword in hand, to lead the people against Rome’s military power. The spiritual visionaries, on the other hand, looked for a Messiah who would usher in a cosmic cataclysm, out of which would emerge a new world order with the Jews, God’s chosen people, marching toward final salvation at the head of a transformed and renewed human race. Even those with less exalted expectation thought that the Messiah would bring back the remnants of the ten lost tribes of Israel and reunite Israel and Judah and restore the nation to its former glory. None of those expectations were met by a Messiah who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” and few of them had any interest in a redeemer who would accomplish the world’s salvation by suffering and dying in the place of sinners. As Alfred Edersheim, the great Jewish Christian scholar of the 19th century wrote, “Assuredly, the most unlike thing to Christ were his times.” [Cited in J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going, 67]
As surely as Isaiah said what the Messiah was going to be like, how unexpected his appearance, how unimpressive to men in many ways, the Jews were as surely not looking for that kind of deliverer. They put Jesus to death because he didn’t meet their expectations; he didn’t fit their profile of a savior. When they realized that he didn’t, they turned on him, angry that he had got their hopes up only to dash them at the end. They wanted a Messiah, they were looking for a Messiah, but not that Messiah! Not a Messiah who would suffer and die on a Roman gibbet!
But the Jews were hardly unique in that. It is the world’s problem still today. Have you noticed how many superhero movies there are these days? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that as the world seems to become day by day a more depressing place, as it seems daily to spin further and further out of control, as it becomes increasingly obvious that we cannot solve our problems as a nation or as a community of nations, as our enemies become more vicious and our own problems and weaknesses more intractable, people crave stories of the hero who rides to our rescue. And what sort of hero? Always the same sort of hero. He’s – and it is almost always he – someone like Superman, or Spiderman, or Batman, or a hundred other such imaginary figures who have the supernatural power to remain unperturbed by danger and to put the world right. None of these heroes is weak and lowly of heart. But also none of them has the wherewithal or even the interest to rescue us from ourselves, to conquer our sinful hearts or to deliver us from our massive guilt; only to whip the bad guys. And the bad guys are always somebody else. None runs the risk of being overlooked or ignored because there is nothing about him that would commend him to us. He is always handsome. Good grief, he can leap from tall buildings, he can fly, he is fantastically strong, and so on. And so it has always been. The savior is always the general at the head of a great host, or the most skillful swordsman, or the steely-eyed fast draw, or now the sci-fi super-hero. Still today no one today is looking for a suffering servant, however much it is that suffering servant who alone can bring us to God. People want a savior to do all manner of things for them, but one of them is not to suffer humiliation as payment for our sins.
Just as there were among the Jews in Jerusalem those who knew very well that Jesus had performed miracles, acts of power they could neither understand nor deny; just as there were Jews in Jerusalem a few weeks later who knew that Jesus had risen from the dead, they nevertheless remained uninterested in him. Why? Because he wasn’t what they were looking for. He wasn’t what they wanted. He was not scratching their itch or solving what they considered to be their real problem. A Jewish biblical scholar, Pinchas Lapide, admitted several years ago, that having studied the evidence, he was convinced that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. But he did not, for that reason, become a follower of Jesus. Why, for goodness sake? Because Pinchas Lapide wasn’t looking for such a savior from sin and death – a redeemer who would die for the sins of the world.
But, you see, the fact that Jesus is the servant of the Lord, the fact that he is high and lifted up and the arm of the Lord, the fact that he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and that the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all, certainly means at least that we are not free to pick and choose our deliverer. God knows what every human being needs. What he needs is the forgiveness of sins. What she needs is to be reconciled to God. What he needs is acquittal in the day of God’s judgment. What she needs is eternal life. And it was this universal human need that made it necessary for the servant of the Lord, and no one less, to be sent into the world.
Only one person can give to you what you so desperately need: one who was both high and lifted up and despised and rejected by men; a servant who was so feeble that he had to be enabled by the Spirit of God every step of the way. People may not want a servant for a savior – partly because we don’t want to be servants ourselves, we are too proud to be or to need such a servant – but only such a servant, only someone who came down from the highest heaven to the lowest earth, only someone whose humiliation was infinite in measure could ever suffer enough to satisfy divine justice for our sin. “A sinner must have his eyes sealed up very close indeed, not to see his salvation here.” [Whyte, With Mercy and With Judgment, 202]
Here is why, as Isaiah said would be the case 700 years before Jesus was born, comparatively few believe in him or have since believed the report about him that we are given in the Word of God. This is not the way they think of themselves being saved. They don’t want to believe that it would require of God such desperate measures to save them. But surely it is obvious that if it were possible to put sinful men right with a holy God in some other way, that way would have been chosen instead of the humiliation of the Son of God himself. Love is always measured by what it is willing to suffer for another’s sake. This is the greatest conceivable suffering and so the greatest conceivable love. This text should both break and mend our hearts!
A Christian is simply someone who believes this report, who has realized that nothing less than the humiliation of God himself would ever have been a sufficient payment for our sins, a humiliation God was willing to suffer because he loves us and wants us to live with him forever. I hope you are all Christians and, if you are not, on this Palm Sunday I hope it will be given to you to understand and believe that you needed a servant to save you and so God made himself a servant for you! You have a debt to pay to God, but you have no means to pay it. Jesus Christ paid it for you. It was a great debt and so it required a payment so immense only the arm of the Lord could pay it and only by becoming and living and dying as a servant both of God and of us. I believe this report; multitudes of wise men and women have believed through the ages and believe it today, though many do not! Do you believe it? That is the great question of your life; really it is the only question! It is because the one high and lifted up became a servant for us that we say: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your household!”