The Sacrificial Lamb

The Sacrificial Lamb

In chapters 40–55, the prophet Isaiah, whose name means “The LORD Saves,” is writing to exiles, 200 years in the future, offering them a word of comfort in a portion of his prophesy known as The Book of Comfort. But as we’ve heard in the Scripture reading, this portion of the Book of Comfort must have been an odd comfort for its focus is the suffering that God’s Servant will undergo. How can the suffering of one bring consolation to many?

This portion in Isaiah is also the last of four Servant Songs,[1] all of which, from the perspective of New Testament authors, are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This passage from Isaiah 52 and 53 is quoted frequently in the New Testament[2] as it describes the Messiah promised by God to deliver his people—and keep in mind that the “Christ” part of the name “Jesus Christ” isn’t a surname, a last name, but a title. “Christ” actually means Messiah. So Jesus was viewed as the promised Messiah from the Old Testament.

Too, what we have in Isaiah is a double-fulfillment prophecy. His prophecy came to pass not only during the time of the Babylonian exile in the 6th c BC in the person of King Cyrus, or Cyrus the Great, but ultimately Isaiah’s prophecy pointed to the promised Messiah who would deliver from suffering all who belonged to God, not just the Jewish people in exile. The provisional fulfillment in Cyrus was but a foretaste of the ultimate fulfillment, deliverance, and consolation that God would provide by means of Jesus Christ—Jesus the Messiah—Jesus the Son of God—Christ who as God entered history by taking on human flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. In the passages from these two chapters in Isaiah, we are provided a snapshot of the life and death of God’s chosen suffering servant, Jesus Christ, and, more importantly, of the purpose for which he came—to receive judgment for our sins that we might be reconciled to God by means of his righteousness and obedience.

Now, when you think about Jesus, what image comes to mind physically? If you were born and raised in the United States, chances are you think of him with light, wind-blown sandy blond or light brown hair, with a beard and moustache, piercing light blue eyes, wearing a flowing white robe and sandals, looking rather ethereal and other-worldly. But as described by Isaiah, this handsome Jesus isn’t an accurate portrayal. First of all he no doubt looked more like a modern-day Jewish believer living in Israel than a blond-hair, blue-eyed N. American. But more importantly, by the end of his life “there were many who were appalled at him” and “his appearance was…disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness” (52:14). Keep in mind that before he died, Jesus was flogged,[3] severely beaten with a whip until bloody; he was spat upon; he was mocked with a crown of thorns on his head; and finally he was crucified, left on a cross, hanging between two common criminals, to die. Yet even from the beginning of his earthly life, what drew people to Jesus wasn’t his physical appearance for “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” Isaiah tells us, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2b). So even prior to his flogging, we may not have been drawn to Jesus’ physical appearance or even noticed him had we met him along the road.

But though providing some of these physical details, Isaiah seeks to draw us into who Jesus was, what he was like, and why he came. God’s promised Messiah is a wise servant (52:13) but though wise “he was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces [again] he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (53:3). Though at times loved by many—we saw last Sunday the homage that multitudes of people paid Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem as a King on a donkey—rejection was ever with him. Even the apostle Peter, one of Jesus’ inmost circle of disciples, ended up abandoning Jesus in his hour of need, the time of his arrest, denying that he ever knew him.

But Jesus’ suffering wasn’t without purpose. The reason he suffered was for us. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering” (53:4a).[4] Jesus’ suffering was corporate. He experienced the cumulative pain and suffering that belonged to us. Listen to these descriptions from Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus’ life:

He “was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities” (53:5a).

“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 its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (53:7).

He “was cut off from the land of the living” (53:8b)

and “was assigned a grave with the wickedthough he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (53:9).[5]

Jesus’ suffering was the suffering of an innocent man. But what is perhaps even harder to grasp, the suffering of this wise, humble, innocent, Servant was by God’s design.[6] In Isaiah 53:10 we read, “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” Again, how is it possible that Isaiah’s recounting of what the Lord’s Servant would have to suffer—even to the point of being slaughtered like a lamb—could bring comfort to those in exile 200 years into the future—bring comfort to us?

The answer is to be found in the reason Isaiah gives for the Servant’s coming, the purpose that can be found behind his suffering. As already noted, in verse 5 of chapter 53 we’re told that the Servant “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;” But the verse goes on to state that “the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Similarly at the end of verse 8 we’re told “for the transgression of my people he was punished.” And, finally, in verse 11: “by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.”

Do you see what’s being said? God’s Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, the sacrificial lamb became a substitute for us. He took our place, he took our sin, he took the punishment we deserve and placed it upon himself on the cross. And all of this was necessary because you and I—because all humans—can be so oblivious and clueless when it comes to knowing our God and Maker. Isaiah reminds us that “All we like sheep have gone astray” Therefore “the LORD has laid on him [God’s servant] the iniquity of us all” (53:6). If we fast forward to the time of the New Testament, the apostle Paul picks up on this point when he states “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus Christ takes on our sin and, in exchange, gives us his righteousness that we might be able—and enabled—to know God, our loving Father.

Now during the time of the Old Testament, the sacrifice of animals was set up as a temporary means for covering sins. To sin—to turn our backs upon God, to follow our ways rather than his ways, to think that we know better than the God who made us how we should live and conduct our lives, selfishly rather than selflessly—leads to death. And the means of atoning, of covering and making amends for these acts that would result in death was to provide an exchange of animal life for human life. When people turned from God’s ways, when they chose death rather than life, the only means of being reconciled to God was by way of sacrificing a life—not human life, but animal life. So human sin was symbolically placed upon animals that were then sacrificed so that forgiveness might be had. This is the origin of the word “scapegoat,” a term we still use today to indicate when one person is blamed for the wrong of others. But the origin of this word was more serious as it required the life of an animal for the sin of man. But, again, the provision of goats[7] and other animal sacrifices was always understood as a temporary measure. One day, God would deal with sin once and for all so that animal sacrifices would no longer be necessary.

God, knowing that the only way human sin could be covered once and for all was by God himself, by the sacrificing his own life, determined before the foundation of the world to enter human history in the form of a Suffering Servant. The sacrifice he provided wouldn’t be an animal sacrifice which could only cover sins temporarily, but a human and divine sacrifice. Since humans are the ones who transgressed—who sinned—who turned their backs on God, the servant’s being human would allow him to serve in humanity’s place, acting as its representative sacrifice. But since human sin is always against God the Suffering Servant would also be God himself for only God can forgive sin and only God can then apply that forgiveness to all who turn to him, seeking his love, seeking his life. The sacrifice of the Suffering Servant—the sacrifice of the servant who was fully God and fully human—would be a final sacrifice for there is no greater sacrifice on earth or in heaven than the life of Jesus Christ, the God–Man. That the Suffering Servant takes our place—takes the place of we who, like sheep, have all gone astray—is captured beautifully by John the Baptist, the final prophet we see in the Bible, who upon seeing Jesus declares: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”[8] What an extraordinary—and perfect—expression of God’s Suffering Servant—of Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah—taking our place, becoming our substitute, taking upon himself the punishment we deserve—that we might be given the eternal life only he can provide.

Brothers and sisters, “it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (10) for only through his suffering could humanity be redeemed; “and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin” (10) the servant “will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. [For a]fter he has suffered, he will see the light of life” and God’s “righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (11). Though the sacrifice and death of the servant on behalf of many is tragically real, the servant will be raised and will see the light of life. And, not only that, he will justify many—specifically, he will justify all who turn to him and accept him and his sacrifice on their behalf—and he will bear their iniquities. He will claim their iniquities as his own and will, in return, give them his righteousness and eternal life.

How can the suffering of one bring consolation to many? Because the servant’s suffering—because Jesus Christ’s suffering and ultimate triumph—will remove their guilt—will remove our guilt—by means of the sacrifice of his own life, thus allowing all the promises of God to come true for them—thus allowing all the promises of God to come true for us.

Let us pray….

[1] Isaiah 42:1–9; Isaiah 49:1–13; Isaiah 50:4–9 are the first three.

[2] E.g. Acts 8:30–35: 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. I Peter 2:22–25: 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

[3] John 19:1ff; Mark 14:65ff; Luke 22:63ff; Matthew 27:26ff.

[4] Matthew 8:14–17: 14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. 16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.”


[5] Matthew 27:57–60: 57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 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. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

[6] Acts 2:23: 22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

[7] E.g. Leviticus 16:20–22 and the scapegoat: 20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

[8] John 1:29, 36: 29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

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