The Silent Suffering Servant

Isaiah 53:7-9
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, February 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004, P.G. Mathew

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Isaiah 53:7-9

Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, in some ways represents the very heart of Christianity – the voluntary, substitutionary and propitiatory death of Jesus Christ.

Mel Gibson did not find any meaning in worldly riches and fame. He became an addict of drugs and alcohol and even contemplated committing suicide. Then he reportedly turned to the Bible and found purpose and meaning in Jesus Christ.

The big question is not who crucified Christ; it is why Jesus was crucified. The answer this movie provides us, as Gibson himself reported to Diane Sawyer of ABC, is, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus Christ died for our sins.

He Did Not Defend Himself

Isaiah 53:7-9 speaks about the silent suffering servant of the Lord. Verse 7 can be translated this way: “Though he was oppressed, he was submissive and opened not his mouth.” He submitted to being arrested, mocked, spat upon, beaten, stripped, struck down, forced to carry his own cross, and crucified. The question we must ask is about the nature of his response. Isaiah says, “He did not open his mouth.” Why did he not protest this great injustice? Why did he not open his mouth and defend himself? Why did he stand there and take all this abuse submissively?

When the Israelites were oppressed by Pharaoh’s taskmasters, as we read in chapters 2 and 3 of Exodus, they cried out to God. The Lord came down and said to Moses, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7). But this lonely Israelite, the Messiah, did not cry out. He allowed all this abuse to happen to him, yet he said nothing.

So we must ask, “Why is that? Why did he not open his mouth and protest? Why did he not defend himself?” When Jeremiah was unjustly abused by his enemies, he was not silent, but cried out to God:

I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” But, O Lord Almighty, you who judge righteously and test the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. (Jeremiah 11:19-20)

You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. Yet you know me, O Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you. Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter! (Jeremiah 12:1-3)

Jeremiah protested, but the Messiah was silent. Even Mahatma Gandhi of India called for non-violent resistance. But Jesus Christ offered no resistance at all, violent or non-violent. The gospel accounts tell us he did not defend himself before Annas, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, Herod Antipas, or the Roman governor Pilate. So Matthew 26:62-63 tells us, “Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’ But Jesus remained silent.” And in Matthew 27:12-14 we read, “When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, ‘Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?’ But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge-to the great amazement of the governor.”

Isaiah predicted this non-defensive and non-complaining attitude of the suffering servant:

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:2-3).

The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:5-7).

Why this self-imposed silence and non-defense? Because Jesus is voluntarily participating in something that he understands to be part of the larger purposes of God-our salvation. He loves his Father and his determinate counsel, and he also loves the elect transgressors like us. This chapter tells us the will of God will prosper in his hand, even though it did not succeed in the hand of any other human being in the world. The servant fully trusts the Father, and his response to this undeserved suffering is that described by David in Psalm 39:9: “I was silent. I would not open my mouth, for you are the one who has done this.”

Yet He Was without Sin

There is no question that the suffering servant is sinless. Isaiah himself tells us that in verse 9: “He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” This speaks about the total innocence and complete guiltlessness of the suffering servant. In verse 11 the Father addresses him as “my righteous servant.”

Pilate examined Jesus Christ three times and proclaimed, “I find no fault in him.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In 1 John 3:5 the apostle John says of Christ, “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” In John 8:46 Jesus himself asks, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” The expected answer is no; no one can convict this suffering servant of sin because he is without sin.

Consider what Peter has to say about Christ in 1 Peter 2:22: “He committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth.” He is quoting here from Isaiah 53. What about the writer to the Hebrews? Hebrews 4:15 tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.” A sinful high priest could not possibly take our sin away. Thus, Hebrews 7:26 celebrates this sinless high priest: “Such a high priest meets our need-one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak,” that is, men who are sinful and dying, “but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” And Hebrews 9:14 tells us, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

Finally, what does the Father say? Right after Jesus’ baptism, the voice came from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

A Voluntary Sacrifice

A lamb goes to the slaughter without knowing that it is about to be killed for sacrifice. But the suffering servant, the Passover Lamb, went to the slaughter for the supreme sacrifice of himself both knowingly and willingly.

The animal sacrifice of the Passover portrays the God-given idea of substitution-that someone else can die in our place. But not only is animal sacrifice not voluntary, it is also not propitiatory, that is, able to make atonement for our sins. The writer to the Hebrews tells us the blood of bulls or goats cannot atone for our sins (10:4). A sinless human being must substitute for a sinful person; a consenting will must substitute for a rebellious will.

The sinless God/man, the Messiah, voluntarily substituted himself for all elect sinners of the world. The new David, the good shepherd, gave his life for his murderers. His silent suffering, then, was voluntary, spontaneous, substitutionary, and propitiatory. So in Philippians 2:8 Paul says, “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even the death on a cross!”

Isaiah himself was saved by an altar, as we read in Isaiah 6:5-7. But the question is, which altar? Can an altar that sacrifices animals save anybody? No! Isaiah’s guilt and sin were not removed by the altar upon which animals were sacrificed, but by the altar on which the suffering servant was sacrificed. Only the death of this suffering servant could take away Isaiah’s guilt and ours.

Why was there no protest and defense on the part of the suffering servant? As Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Christ came to die in our place for our salvation. Our sins were heaped upon him by the Father, and he was punished in our place by the Father. He became sin for us “that we might become the righteousness of God.”

All we like sheep have gone astray and have turned from God’s way to our own ways. Isaiah applies this animal simile not only to us but also to the suffering servant. So he says this servant was led to the slaughter like a lamb, the Passover lamb. No wonder John the Baptist looked at him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In 1 Corinthians 5:7 Paul declares, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed,” and Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:19 that we were redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

A Necessary Sacrifice

The suffering servant understood why he came. He agreed with God’s eternal plan to die in our place, so he set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem. (PGM) In Matthew 16 we discover this divine determinate counsel, the divine decree regarding the necessity of the substitutionary, propitiatory, and voluntary death of Jesus Christ to secure our salvation. Matthew 16:21 begins, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem. . . .” Here is the word dei – the divine must. The determinate counsel of God from all eternity is that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Thanks be to God for his eternal plan!

In the gospel of Luke we again see the self-consciousness Jesus had of his mission. He knew why he became incarnate, what the Father wanted him to do, and he did it. He knew the whole Old Testament spoke about this sacrifice of himself. So in Luke 24:25 he told the Emmaus disciples, “‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

These verses give us the biblical hermeneutic of interpreting Scripture in a Christocentric manner. The message of the Bible is Jesus Christ. Paul said he did not want to know anything except “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It is that passion, the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ, that gripped Mel Gibson. He must go, he must die, he must be raised to life. This is the divinemust, the divine order, the determinate counsel of the Father, to which the Son agreed from all eternity, knowingly and voluntarily.

He Suffered on Our Behalf

The servant suffered silently and submissively the punishment due us, meted out to him by the Father and the secondary human agents. I hope you understand the seriousness of this truth. This is the height of biblical soteriology. Once you grasp this, you must trust in Jesus Christ and be saved.

Why did he not vindicate himself? Why did he not defend himself and prove his innocence? The answer is, he did not justify himself so that he might justify the ungodly. The sinless God/man died so that the sinful may be spared eternal death. Romans 8:32 tells us that God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.” The Son became sin for us and received the full punishment for our sin.

Did this suffering servant get a fair trial? Oh, no. He did not receive due process of the law. He was taken away to be crucified, and suffered a violent, premature death. But he was voluntarily suffering the just judgment of God that was due us. That is why he did not defend himself. The Father himself says in verse 8, “For the transgression of my people he was stricken.” The literal translation is: “A blow to him for the transgression of my people.” As God’s people, we are the ones who transgressed God’s law in total rebellion. But the blow was directed, not to us, but to the suffering servant, and it killed him. God said, “A blow to him for the transgression, the rebellion, the twistedness, the perversion, and the guilt of my people.”

Thank God, there is no blow to us, either now or in the future. The wrath of God will not be upon us, God’s people, because the servant suffered for us.

Honorable Burial

Not only did the suffering servant die; we are told in this passage that he was buried. But there is an enigma in his burial. Verse 9 says, “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” Criminals and crucified people were considered unclean, so the Romans buried them with their crosses in unclean places near the site of their crucifixion. According to custom, Jesus would have been thrown into an unclean pit. But that did not happen. That human intention to bury Jesus with the criminals was thwarted by divine intervention. A rich man came, took Jesus’ body, and buried it in his own tomb: “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself became a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away” (Matthew 27:57-60). Thus this prophecy regarding the unusual burial of Jesus was fulfilled.

The question arises, “Why was he with the rich in his death?” Ultimately, it was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, but I think further explanation is offered by the following translation of verse 9: “He was assigned a grave with the criminals, but he was with the rich in his death because he had done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth.” Unlike Isaiah, who was sinful and who had unclean lips, the suffering servant was completely righteous. No other man was ever without sin. So God gave him an honorable burial after a dishonorable death.

Glorious Resurrection

In the next three verses, Isaiah goes on to tell us about Christ’s resurrection. Christ rose from this borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea on the third day according to the Scriptures.

Paul tells us in Romans 4:25, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” In the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, we find our complete salvation. Jesus said to his disciples, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Because he lives, we will live forever with him. So Jesus tells us, “Do not let your heart be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1). In fact, he commands us throughout the Bible, “Fear not!” Christians have no reason to be anxious, to worry, or to fear. Christ died, Christ was buried, and Christ lives as our Savior and Lord now and forevermore. We can therefore say with confidence, “I shall never die the second death; I have eternal life through Jesus Christ.”

No man could have devised this method of salvation, but it was planned from all eternity by God the Father. In Genesis 22, God told Abraham not to kill his son, and showed him a ram caught in a thicket, that he might sacrifice the ram in place of Isaac. But there was no sparing when it came to God’s own Son. He gave him up for our salvation.

Behold the silent, suffering servant! He is the Son of God, the God/man, the guiltless One, silently suffering for the guilty, that he may justify ungodly sinners like us! He suffers silently because he is suffering for our sins, not his. He will not defend or justify himself, because he has voluntarily taken our sin upon himself. Behold the love of God shown in this suffering Christ, the Savior! He is the good shepherd spoken of by Ezekiel, the shepherd who gave himself for his sheep (Ezekiel 34). Jesus Christ laid down his life for you and for me. If you have not trusted in this silent suffering servant, I pray that God will grant you faith to believe in him and be saved. Amen.