It’s difficult for ministers to maintain perspective around Christmas time.
The endless barrage of strip-mall Santas and social events, novelty songs and nativity scenes can kick up enough mind-numbing nostalgia dust to cloud anyone’s spiritual vision. Yet, in the midst of the swollen schedules, we must help our people in our churches come to grips with the significance of the Child in the manger whom the church “celebrates.”
The Bible attests of one individual who comprehended clearly the proverbial “true meaning” of Christmas. This man was Isaiah. Ironically, some 700 years before the actual birth of Jesus, this prophet perceived and proclaimed Christ, His person and His work in a more lucid manner than most today who have the benefit of God’s complete revelation. As the Apostle John writes, Isaiah “saw His glory, and he spoke of Him” (John 12:41).
What exactly did Isaiah “see” and “declare” about Christ? Among other things, he saw that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (7:14), would be both God and man (9:6), would perform miracles (35:5-6), and would preach good news (61:1).
However, in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the “Song of the Suffering Servant,” we have the most precise of all Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the work of Christ. This passage presents a straightforward and shocking depiction of our Savior’s suffering and substitutionary work. So clear is its fulfillment that one could almost read the text and forget it is an Old Testament passage.
In the song, Isaiah presents several truths about our Savior, the “Suffering Servant.” Let us this Christmas help out congregations consider the significance of our Savior through Isaiah’s eyes.
Isaiah recognized the identity of the Servant
Because of the precision of the prophecy, many doubters throughout the centuries have identified the servant of Isaiah 53 as someone other than Jesus. Suggestions include: Israel, Isaiah, Moses, and another prophet, etc.
True, “servant” does occasionally refer to Israel and Isaiah in chapters 40-55. However, in the four “servant songs” (others are in chaps. 42, 49 and 50), the clear referent is the Davidic Messiah. In fact, in the Old Testament the expression “My servant David” often functions as a Messianic title (Psalm 89:3, 20; Jeremiah 33:26; Ezekiel 34:23; 37:25; Zechariah 3:8; Luke 1:69).
The New Testament writers undoubtedly understood the Servant to refer to Jesus Christ. In fact, they cite or allude to Isaiah 53 some 48 times—a number eclipsed only by Daniel 7 (59 times).
Isaiah recognized the rejection of the Servant
In the initial words of the passage, we find partial evidence why the Servant is said to be “suffering.” Despite His sacrificial love described in the later verses and despite His exaltation before God (52:13-15), the world would despise Him (53:3).
Humans are attracted to money, flash, majesty, fame—not sorrows, shame, and suffering. The servant possessed no worldly attractiveness. Therefore the world hated him. And people still snub Christ because His humility and sacrifice do not fit their worldview, lifestyle, and values. Yet, in the wisdom of God, Christ was rejected that we might be accepted.
Isaiah recognized the sin of those served by the Servant
Isaiah makes evident the need for the Servant’s sacrifice and suffering—“our infirmities” (v. 4), “our sorrows” (v. 4), “our transgressions” (v. 5), “our iniquities” (v. 5), our straying (v. 6), “the iniquity of us all” (v. 6), “the transgression of My people” (v. 8), “the sin of many” (v. 12).
The essence of the biblical worldview is that humanity has a sin problem. And sin must either be covered or the sinner punished.
Isaiah recognized the atoning sacrifice of the Servant
Isaiah wrote chapters 40-55 to comfort a people who would one day experience exile—God’s forcible removal of His people from the Promised Land as precipitated by their covenant disobedience. Earlier passages in Isaiah give the people hope of a physical restoration to the land. Chapter 53 gives them hope that the very thing that sent them into exile in the first place—their sin—would be covered and forgiven (v. 4). This would be accomplished through the Servant.
Though innocent (v. 7), the Servant would vicariously suffer, even unto death, experiencing the punishment that God’s people justly deserved (vv. 5-6) in order to bring them peace and healing (v. 5)—a doctrine we know today as penal substitutionary atonement.
The image employed plainly recalls the death of the lamb in an Old Testament sacrifice. Yet, no animal would or could bear and atone for the sins of God’s people; shockingly, it would be a human, a Servant, who would shed his blood sacrificially.
Isaiah recognized that the Servant’s suffering was the will of God
Perhaps most shocking to the modern mind are the final statements of Isaiah’s song. Note who imposes the suffering on the Servant. God does. And more scandalous still, He was “pleased” to do it.
But didn’t the religious leaders frame Jesus? Didn’t Judas betray Jesus? Didn’t the soldiers nail Him to the cross? Yes, but it was the will of God that these things happen. It was God’s “pleasure” for Christ to die.
Does this mean that those involved are absolved of guilt? No, but they only did what was permitted by God. Does this mean that God did not grieve to see His son on the cross? No, the idea expressed with “pleasure” is “desire” or “will.” God was willing to do it, because He sees all ends.
What were those ends? Simply, the servant died for the justification of many and His own ultimate exaltation (vv. 10-12). Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
This is the Christ that we celebrate at Christmas—a man of sorrows, slaughtered for our sin, but ultimately exalted at the right hand of the Father. To use the angels’ words, “Glory to God in the highest!”
A native of Austell, Ga., Bryan Cribb came to Anderson University following a five-year tenure at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga. Dr. Cribb holds a BA in political science and a BS in mathematics from Furman University in Greenville, S.C. After being called into the ministry, he received his master of divinity in biblical and theological studies and his doctor of philosophy from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His primary emphasis in PhD work was Old Testament theology, with minor areas of study in New Testament theology and Old Testament languages.
Dr. Cribb is married to Elizabeth, and they have three sons—Daniel Luther, Josiah John, and Nathanael Bryan. Elizabeth is an RN and a stay-at-home mom, who also holds a master of divinity degree from Southern Seminary.