In 7 BC, Jerusalem had been living under the oppression of an occupying army for many years. Most folks probably hoped for a glorious Messiah rather than a suffering servant. From today’s vantage point it may not be that obvious, but it stands to reason when first Century Hebrew people read the Scriptures, they looked for a mighty Messiah who would overthrow the hated Romans. They hoped for a deliverer to reestablish God’s kingdom.
A Logical Expectation
Based on their circumstances, it absolutely makes sense that they were focused on a coming King who would restore their kingdom and return it to its former glory. However, there were several prophecies that pointed to a suffering servant, a type of Messiah completely different than who they expected…
A Different Prophecy About a Different Outcome
Here’s one of them: “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.” (Isaiah 52:13-15, NIV)
Isaiah says “my [God’s] servant” will be raised and lifted up, but also disfigured and marred. In the process, he says, this servant will “sprinkle many nations” and wield influence over kings… Wait, a Chosen One who would be appalling and disfigured? How could this be?
Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah being a suffering servant probably didn’t make much sense to devout Jews in Jesus’ day. Chafing under Roman rule, they were undoubtedly looking for a Deliverer along the lines of King David. They anticipated a dynamic and attractive ruler with a godly heart and a warrior spirit.
The notion that the Coming One might be disfigured and appalling to many would have been unthinkable. And the idea that He might be lifted up in crucifixion rather than in earthly glorification would have been shocking and offensive. Yet Isaiah said the Messiah would be “marred beyond human likeness”. His prophecy foretold that the Messiah would be more like a suffering servant than a conquering King.
In Isaiah 53 he said: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
Connecting the Dots
Isaiah’s vivid language pointed directly to the cross, just as Jesus did in John 12:31 when he said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” John clarified what Jesus meant in the next verse: “This he said, signifying what death he should die.” When Jesus spoke of being lifted up, he wasn’t talking about being a celebrity, he was talking about being nailed to a cross…
Matthew says, right after Jesus revealed his true purpose to his followers, that “From that time forth Jesus began to show to his disciples how he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.” (Matthew 16:21, NKJV) Jesus did not scheme with his disciples about politics; he acted like their servant and told them about his suffering. They didn’t want to hear of it, and they certainly didn’t think of Isaiah 52.
He Already Knew
But Isaiah’s prophecy was well-known to Jesus, and it provided a foreshadowing of his mission and his purpose. Jesus remembered Isaiah’s words and wanted to make sure we all understood what he meant by being lifted up. That’s why he quoted Psalm 22:1 from the cross, in order to call attention to its graphic description of the Messiah being lifted up in the agony of crucifixion. He wanted us to get it, to understand that He knew what his mission was and what his sacrifice would accomplish. He came to earth, not to be a slick-talking sovereign but to be a suffering servant.
According to Isaiah, it would touch “many nations”, sprinkling them with protective sacrifice for sin. The Messianic mission will ultimately silence both critics and kings. They will see and understand that, to Jesus, being exalted meant something different than it means to earthly monarchs. Jesus was not famous because he was good-looking, or celebrated because he was superior. He is to be exalted because he came as a suffering servant rather than as King, and he gave himself as a sacrifice when he didn’t have to–just so you can see what you were not told, and understand what you had not heard. Don’t override God’s revelation with your own assumptions and expectations. Look. Listen. See. Understand.
The Glorious Deliverer Nobody Expected
Messiah. Lord. Almighty King. Deliverer. Ya’ll, but here’s the thing,
He didn’t come for earthly gain, or to Jerusalem to reign;
His home was way out in the sticks; he didn’t enter politics.
Instead, he served, and took the cup. He said, “I will be lifted up”,
But not the way a Caesar would be; Jesus offered hope that could be
Freely offered from the cross. What others may have seen as loss,
He used, and came to earth and bring a different kind of earthly king.
Some men dreamt of victory in toppling mighty Rome;
Jesus came from glory just to bring his children home.
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