Few promises are as straight forward and detailed as that of God’s servant sent to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins found in Isaiah 52 and 53.
God grounds this promise in his action on our behalf. He promises we will know his name, a name which brings us salvation. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32).
He promises we will know that it is he who speaks (Isa 52:6). He will send his messenger to bring the good news of our salvation by his reign (Isa 52:7). Jesus, the messenger, the Word made flesh, brought this good news from God. As Mark writes, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14).
He promises that the forgiveness of our sin, which brings life and salvation, will not be hidden. “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God” (Isa 52:10). Simeon attested to this when he looked upon the infant Jesus, “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples, a light to reveal you to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). God, through the prophet Isaiah, tells us what our salvation will look like: “Behold, my servant… shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (Isa 52:13).
But, though the arm of the Lord, that is, his power to save us, has been revealed to all people, God rhetorically asks, who has believed this good news that God has spoken and shown? (Isa 53:1). The implied answer being, no one.
The Apostle John clues us in as to why we have not believed God’s word. “Jesus answered… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” Then John adds this parenthetical, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:30, 32-33). This is not the kind of exaltation we expected.
The rest of the promise details the reversed expectations of the suffering servant’s path. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of the dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa 53:2). Philip’s response to the good news that the gospel messenger, the Word of God, has arrived to fulfill these words and foreshadows our doubts, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
We considered him afflicted and smitten by God, even though the griefs he bore and the sorrows he carried were ours (Isa 53:4). “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds, we are healed” (Isa 53:5). In the face of this imbalance of justice, standing as one innocent, yet convicted as one guilty, he did not speak up to defend himself but remained silent (Isa 53:7).
But should we really be surprised that it would happen this way, that the servant would suffer for our salvation and die for our forgiveness? God’s first gospel promise in Genesis said the serpent would bite the heel of the offspring that would crush its head (Gen 3:15). Further, it was not us who laid our sin on him. No, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of all….. It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa 53:6, 10).
Should we really be surprised that it would happen this way, that the servant would suffer for our salvation and die for our forgiveness?
Furthermore, in this promise, God indicates that it would take something more than riches to redeem his people. “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money” (Isa 52:3). Luther’s explanation of the second article of the Creed in the Small Catechism reflects this. Jesus, true God, and true man, “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his precious holy blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”
Maybe we could acknowledge that an innocent man died on a cross centuries ago. But to believe that a particular innocent man suffered and died on a particular day in history, on a particular Roman cross for me takes an act of faith. An act of faith, we cannot do.
God, recognizing our inability to believe, again rhetorically asks, “and as for this generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of my people?” (Isa 53:8). Though we should have seen this coming, and even if we did, we could not believe it on our own. Like Philip, we ask, “what good can come from one innocent man’s suffering and death in the first century?”
To believe that a particular innocent man suffered and died on a particular day in history, on a particular Roman cross for me takes an act of faith.
Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Creed brings this home to us. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith is not a work, but a gift, as is the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Though Christ fulfilled these words on that long-ago Friday, the realities of this promise still abound. We are sinners in need of forgiving. Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins.
This is the Advent hope that this promise still puts forth. We are forgiven, not with perishable goods, like money, possessions, or a sacrificial animal, but with the innocent suffering and shedding of the divine blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, unto death. And though we cannot believe by our own reason or strength that that forgiveness is ours, we still have hope. The Spirit of God, who makes us holy, calls us by the good news of this free forgiveness and creates in us the faith we need to believe in the promises of God. And he will sustain that faith until Christ returns.