Monday, December 2, 2013

Jesus: The Servant

When we think of Jesus as a servant, one image springs immediately to mind.  The Savior at the table with his disciples, wash basin on the floor, towel cinched around his waist, washing their feet.  We've read the story a hundred times.  But did you know that one of the prophetic names of Jesus is "The Servant" and that the meaning encompasses more than the startling lesson of the Rabbi kneeling on the floor?  The Jews of Jesus' day had a prophetic picture in mind of who "The Servant of the Lord" was and what he was coming to do.  

At first in the prophets Israel is the one known as the "servant of the Lord"(Isaiah 42:1, 43:10, 44:1). There are two aspects of this role. First God longs to bless Israel.  He promises both his protection and an outpouring of his Spirit on his servant (Isaiah 44). Second Israel, as the servant of the Lord, will glorify God's name among all the nations (Isaiah 43). This echoes back all the way to Abraham's promise that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). 

The first century Jewish community found the fulfillment of both of these promises of God incomplete. They longed to be a light to the nations. The Pharisees sought proselytes and the disciples sought a renewed physical kingdom.  They were both disappointed in their hopes. (Matthew 23:15, Acts 1:6).  Although God had promised both physical prosperity and spiritual revival to Jacob his servant (Isaiah 44:1-10), there were no prophets.  The poor, demon-possessed and sick seemed to increase by the day, and the promised outpouring of the Spirit seemed to be smoke and mirrors.  

But Isaiah had still another promise.  Chapter by chapter the prophet builds up this idea: originally Israel was the servant whom God called to serve as a light and a salvation to the people. However, due to years of sin they had been exiled, and they themselves needed to be saved.  God has another servant prepared, not only to help them but to take their place. Isaiah 49 introduces this shift in focus. Although Isaiah still refers to Israel as the one in whom God would show his glory (Isaiah 49:3), he begins to describe the "servant" as an individual.  God is described as forming the servant in the womb. Isaiah says God will call Israel back from exile through this servant. Isaiah 52 and 53 bring this theme to the forefront. 

We are very familiar with Isaiah 53.  A perennial Christmas favorite, Handel's Messiah even has a section based on vs. 6.  Yet when we set it carefully against the broader context in Isaiah and the background of the first century Jews, the brighter meaning of the whole passage comes clear. 

Israel's real destiny-to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to the nations-has been thwarted by their sin, and this "Servant" will come and be exalted (Isaiah 52:13-15). Standing in their place, his suffering becomes their salvation. We normally read passages such as Isaiah 53:4 from a New Testament perspective.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.  

Yet don't forget that the readers from both the time period of Isaiah and Jesus would have heard that "we" as "We, Israelites." Stop and read that passage again with that in mind.  All the sin and sorrow of Israel is carried on the shoulders of this other servant who will represent Israel and bear their punishment himself. God will use this suffering servant to bring the blessing and healing he promised to Israel.  It is through him that Abraham's promise, that all the nations would be blessed in his seed, is finally fulfilled. It is not fulfilled by Abraham's extended family as whole but by the singular Servant of the Lord.

When we say Jesus is Isaiah's prophesied Servant we certainly mean that He is the fulfillment of the fascinatingly specific prophesy of Isaiah 53. But we can't forget that it also means that God declared:

It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6)

Paul joins Isaiah to say that Christ has become our peace.  Jesus brought salvation and light by breaking down the barrier.  His cross allowed every human being to become a part of the family of God (Ephesians 2).  Not only the tribes of Jacob but people of every nation can join the covenant.  No matter to which race they were born, they can be born again a son or daughter of Abraham and better yet a son or daughter of God (Galatians 3:27-29).

Israel was unable to complete their destiny.  They wanted to be a light to the nations. They longed to witness God's power to the world. Jesus did it.  He is the light come into a dark world.  He is the truest witness of God being the only way to know the Father (John 8:12-59).  

And what about us?  We are spiritual Israel, the body of Christ on earth. We have the Spirit of God outpoured in our hearts (Ephesians 5:18, Acts 2:38).  Will we show his fruit in our lives? (Galatians 5:22-16) Will we be like Israel, or will we fulfill our destiny? Will we shine as lights?  (Matthew 5:14-16, 2 Peter 1:19) Will we take the salvation of God out of our church buildings and Christian enclaves into the alleys and universities, into the prisons and hospitals, into the jungles and cities?  Will we become the light of the nations so that God's salvation may reach the ends of the earth?
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. 

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