The Man of Sorrows Could Not Save Himself

The Man of Sorrows Could Not Save Himself

According to the Internet Movie Database, Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, “Depicts the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, on the day of his crucifixion in Jerusalem.”[1] It’s remarkable that Mr. Gibson was able to come up with over two hours of recreated and reimagined footage since each of the four Gospel writers in the New Testament dedicate but one chapter, or a portion thereof, to Jesus’ passion, to his suffering and death.[2] Though I’ve never seen Gibson’s movie, John Paul II who was Pope at the time this movie came out, was famously quoted as saying concerning it, “It is as it was.”[3] In other words, he thought Gibson had gotten it right.

And yet, not to sound too callous, but so what? What difference does one man’s crucifixion make? As David Wells has observed, in the ancient world crucifixion “was a death that many others had also suffered. In fact, it was an event so common in the first-century Roman world that Jesus’ crucifixion almost passed unnoticed. For the soldiers who carried it out, it was an unexceptional part of their routine. As for the Jewish leaders who had opposed Christ, it was a fitting end to their problem. Soon, they were back to business as usual.”[4] Wells’ point came home to me when one of my students shared that though prior to coming to faith in Christ he had seen Gibson’s movie, seeing it didn’t help him understand why Jesus had suffered on the cross; it only showed him that he had suffered. Similarly, one individual compared the 2008 movie in the Rambo series to The Passion of the Christ for its “intensity of violence.”[5] The point is that it’s easy for us to forget or to take for granted the meaning and purpose of Christ’s crucifixion. It isn’t enough to know that he suffered or that he suffered violently and intensely. Therefore we mustn’t assume that simply because people across the world hear about Jesus’ dying on the cross that they understand why he died or what he accomplished by his death.

The passage Bob read for us is one of the Suffering Servant portions from the book of Isaiah[6] that points forward to the suffering of Christ. Yet Isaiah also tells why this suffering servant had to suffer. And as we listen to these words, written over 700 years before Christ’s coming to earth, we see how the descriptions of this suffering servant were uncannily fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. In fact, after he had risen from death, Jesus appeared to the downcast disciples on the Road to Emmaus who were talking about his death on the cross—and about how some of the women had amazed them because they had gone to his tomb and found it to be empty—and about how these very women had gone on to proclaim that he was alive. And it was at this point that Jesus revealed himself to these troubled disciples by saying to them, “‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”[7]

Well it’s evident in turning to Isaiah that what he foretold in this passage was indeed “concerning himself”—that is, was concerning what one day would come upon Christ Jesus. Beginning with Isaiah 52:13 we read how God’s servant:

shall act wisely—as Jesus ever did;

and shall be high and lifted up—as Jesus was on the cross;[8]

and shall be exalted—as Jesus was on various occasions by the Father.[9]

Now that Jesus was a servant no one can deny for we know that on the very night on which he was betrayed by Judas he demonstrated his servant nature by washing the feet of his twelve disciples. And the very next night, the night on which he was crucified, our Lord went from being a servant who serves those whom he loves to being a servant who suffers and dies for those whom he loves. But, again, we’re left with the question: Why did this servant, God who came to earth in the flesh, have to suffer?

Isaiah begins by focusing first, on the servant’s suffering. Starting with Isaiah 52:14, and highlighting portions that follow, we’re told that:

The suffering servant’s appearance was…marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind;

In chapter 53:2 Isaiah notes that this suffering servant had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him;

Indeed, verse 3, he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; as one from whom men hid their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not;

Verse 4, this man of sorrows bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;

This man of sorrows we esteemed stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted;

Verse 7, he was oppressed and afflicted yet opened not his mouth.

All of this is in keeping with what the Gospel writers tell us about Christ Jesus for the Gospels record how Jesus was flogged;[10] and had a crown of thorns placed on his head;[11] and was mocked;[12] and spit upon;[13] and slapped on the face;[14] and was repeatedly struck on the head with a staff;[15] and was forced to carry the cross on which he would be crucified;[16] and finally the Gospel writers tell how he was crucified and nailed to the cross[17] upon which he eventually died.

But Isaiah tells not only how God’s servant suffered but, second, about why he suffered. For again, ultimately it isn’t enough to know that Jesus Christ suffered for not only did many others suffer by crucifixion in his day, but many people in our world today suffer and oftentimes our suffering seems to have no meaning beyond reminding us that we live in a fallen world, marked by evil and other effects of that Fall. Yet the suffering of Christ was for a purpose. And that purpose was to save us. As Elizabeth Goudge has so eloquently stated, those who tormented our Lord while he hung on the cross by mockingly saying, “He saved others; himself he cannot save” had, in fact, unwittingly spoken “the great truth about redemption.”[18] That the Man of Sorrows could not save himself is the great truth of redemption because had Jesus saved himself, he could not have saved us.

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself but suffered because without him you and I are helpless and hopeless; unable to help ourselves; unable to be the people we would like to be; unable to be the people we were meant to be; unable to be the people God made us to be. As Isaiah reminds us in verse 6, all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to our own way. And the only way for us to turn back to God is through this suffering servant upon whom the LORD has laid the iniquity of us all;

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself but suffered, verse 5, so that he might be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. For he was the recipient of the chastisement that belonged to us and his chastisement was the means God chose to bring us peace, to make things right between us and him. This is why it is only by his wounds that we are healed;

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself but suffered, verse 10, for it was the LORD’s will to crush him and to put him to grief that by his soul he might make an offering for guilt, for our guilt

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself because, verse 11,  out of the anguish of this suffering servant’s soul he would see and be satisfied; by his knowledge would this, God’s righteous servant, make many to be accounted righteous for he would bear their iniquities—by his anguish he bears our iniquities;

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself because, verse 12, this suffering servant had to pour out his soul to death. He had to be numbered with the transgressors and bear the sin of many that he might make intercession for them. Because God is holy and cannot die, in order to die for us, he had to become a man that he might take our place, that he might take our sin and, in exchange and as God, give us his holiness and eternal life;

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself. Though he knew the fact of sin, he had no experiential knowledge of it. And yet Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself because he desired to die in our place by taking upon himself sins’ effects, our sins’ effects, on the cross;

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself  because he determined to take upon himself the sins of all who would turn to him;

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself because he chose to be made sin that he might receive God’s wrath upon himself instead of having it fall upon those who were its proper recipients;

Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself because he sought to provide a way of our being reconciled to our heavenly Father who made us in his image, who made us for himself.

The death of Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, wasn’t merely a crucifixion, akin to the many the Roman government carried out in his day, but it was a crucifixion whose meaning is found on the cross. Quoting David Wells again, the cross

as the New Testament speaks of it, has to do with the mysterious exchange that took place in Christ’s death, an exchange of our sin for his righteousness. It was there that our judgment fell on the One who is also our Judge. Indeed, he who had made all of creation was dishonored in the very creation he had made. And yet, through this dark moment, this fierce judgment, through this dishonor, there now shines the light of God’s triumph over sin, death, and the Devil. And in this moment, this moment of Jesus’ judgment-death, God was revealed in his holy-love as nowhere else.[19]

My brothers and sisters, this is why Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, could not save himself;

This is why Christ Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, chose to suffer and die. He could not save himself because he chose, instead, to save you and me.

Let us pray.


[2] Matthew 27:26–56; Mark 15:15–47; Luke 23:26–43; John 19:1–37.


[4] David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2014.

[5] Chris, age 30, on <>

[6] The others are Isaiah 42:1–4; Isaiah 49:1–6; Isaiah 50:4–7.

[7] Luke 24:25–27. The entire account is found in Luke 24:13–35.

[8] As recorded in John 12:31–32 Jesus himself testified, “31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John notes that, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”

[9] Including the occasion that led Jesus to make the point stated in the previous footnote for when Jesus predicted his own death, the people gathered heard the Father proclaim that he had glorified his name and would glorify it again and Jesus told all who present that this had been for their benefit, not his (John 12:30). But see also the accounts of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:1–17, Mark 1:1–11, Luke 3:21–24, John 1:30–34) and Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36).

[10] Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1.

[11] Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2.

[12] Matthew 27:29, 31; Mark 15:18, 20; Luke 23:35–36

[13] Matthew 27:30; Mark 15:19

[14] John 19:3.

[15] Matthew 27:30; Mark 15:19

[16] Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26; John 19:17.

[17] Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33; John 19:18.

[18] Elizabeth Goudge, God So Loved the World, New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., p. 278. See Matthew 27:38–44: 38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.; Mark 15:27–32: 27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28] 29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

[19] Ibid., p. 130.