In the fall of 2005, Pastor and Mrs. Steven Graham hosted a Conference at their home church: Pioneer Valley Baptist Chapel of Chicopee. I was among the guests. Over the Sabbath afternoon following the meetings, this gracious, godly man took three of us in his van amid the dappled fall colours of west Massachussetts to share his passion for the Puritan, Evangelical heritage of his local area, where long before God had moved in great revivals.
We had already solemnly viewed the names of stones in an ancient village cemetery: David Brainerd, the Edwards, the Stoddards. Now we travelled out to Northfield.
We saw the plain, pleasant farmhouse around which an imposing campus of buildings had grown into a boys' school, then a college. And just behind, and above, on a rounded knoll of a hill, we could see them, side by side. We quietly strode upward, leaned downward, and read the inscriptions. “EMMA REVELL MOODY”. “DWIGHT LYMAN MOODY.” ‘He that doeth the will of God abideth forever.’
Standing on that ground, with the breathtaking vista of the valley around us which he had so loved, remembering what God had made of the dust and ashes at our feet, I rightly felt very small, very humble, very grateful. I could only imagine the lovable father, the eager Bible student, the man of prayer, the earnest soul–winner, and powerful evangelist that had been in this world “Mister Moody.” I tried to catch at the sound of his voice in the crisp, sharp accents of the locals. I thought I could almost hear his terse reply to an English clergyman's condescending question:
“My creed, sir? My creed is in the Fifty–Third of Isaiah!”
Yes, Moody's creed. And ours.
The “Fifty–Third of Isaiah” is the veritable backbone of the Bible, the sum of all the prophet's “Servant Songs” which unfold the glory of Israel and the light of the Gentiles in the hoped–for Messiah. No other single Old Testament passage is so extensively or emphatically quoted in the New.
When the Spirit of God sent Philip the deacon down the desert road to Gaza, it was a wonder that he met the treasurer of Queen Candace of Ethiopia in his chariot. It was no less a wonder that he found him reading aloud from this portion of Isaiah. “And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same Scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” (Acts 8:34–35)
Jesus our Saviour is surely here. The Holy Ghost, who speaking in the prophets told of the sufferings and glory of Christ (1 Peter 1:10–12), gives us a predictive panorama with the entire sweep of His person and work, a full seven centuries ere ever angel voices startled Mary, Joseph or the shepherds. The five stanzas of Isaiah 52:13–53:12 reveal in turn His astonishing revelation (52:13–15); His mysterious incarnation (53:1–3); His vicarious substitution (53:4–6); His unjust condemnation (53:7–9) and His wonderful vindication (53:10–12). Every step parallels Paul's great hymn in Philippians 2.
Jesus our Saviour followed through on this passage in every step, in every verse. He must have had it in mind as He left the throne of glory for the Virgin's womb: “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, …Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. …By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb.10:5,7,10; Isa.53:10).
He must have recalled it as John Baptist hailed Him passing by Bethabara: “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29;Isa.53:6–7)
It was on His lips as He closed the Last Supper and asked for two swords in the Upper Room: “For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.” (Luke 22:37; Isa. 53:12).
It was in His heart as He drew aside from the Twelve, and the Three, in the darkness of the olive trees at Gethsemane: “ My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. And He went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. And He said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:34–36; Isa.53:12).
It is therefore very right and meet for us to turn to this passage, to share the experience of the beloved disciple, the last apostle John: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth… But though He had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him: That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?These things said Esaias, when he saw His glory, and spake of Him.” (John 1:14, 12:37–41).
Let us for once shut out the jingle–jingle and bling–bling, if only for a little while. Let us be still, and know that He is God.
The stanza before us unfolds the Messiah's mysterious incarnation; it opens with a surprising exclamation (v.1), and closes with a sorrowful explanation (v.2). The surprise is the intervention of His Deity – the sorrow is the revelation of His humanity. For He who rose as the “dayspring from on high”, “the bright and morning star” is both “the root and offspring of David” (Luke 1:78–79; Rev.22:16). “A tender plant, and a root out of a dry ground.” (v.2).
The opening stanza of this, Isaiah's supreme “Servant song”, is a dialogue: Jehovah Himself reveals His servant (52:13), and Isaiah reflects upon the astonishing, paradoxical revelation (52:14–15). The closing stanza mirrors this dialogue: Isaiah announces the Servant's resurrection victory (53:10–11), and Jehovah acclaims His servant as Lord and Christ (53:12). Revelation opens; Vindication closes.
The three middle stanzas chronicle the Messiah's Humiliation. The prophet here speaks, but he does not speak alone: “Who hath believed our report?” (53:1) Rather he speaks in concert with “all the ransomed Church of God” who can claim by grace “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.” (53:5). And so he embodies the voice of the prophets. “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10:43) He anticipates the voice of the apostles. “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” (1 John 1:3–4). He speaks for the saints of all ages who carry along the glad tidings of great joy to all peoples, of the Saviour Christ. “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things.” ( Luke 24:46–48)
God's elect thus receive and report the testimony God Himself has given of His Son: “The arm of the LORD is revealed” (53:1). Just as the prophet declared earlier, “Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:9–10, cf. 40:4–5, Luke 3:4–6, 1 Jn.5:5–13).
God Himself will intervene to save us – put His own arm into miry clay to lift us out! The “mighty hand and outstrectched arm” that of old redeemed from bondage in Egypt (Ex.6:6, Dt.4:34), that they remembered on the Sabbath (Dt.5:15) and confessed at harvest (Dt.26:8), that drew Israel (Ps.98:1) and the nations (2 Chr.6:32) to prayer and praise – that arm shall be made bare again, to save a lost world. By it He will conquer our foes, deliver us, gather us, and prosper us. (Isa.63:5,59:16,40:10–11,62:8; cf Lk.1:51).
The news is incredible – so incredible, Isaiah must exclaim, “Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For He shall grow before Him …as a root out of a dry ground.” (vv.1–2). The Sun of righteousness may arise with healing in His wings, but to blind eyes, deaf ears, and hard hearts, it is too good to be true.
And so it was. How the Servant–Saviour grew out of dry ground at His coming! The nation was under occupation (Jn.11:47–48); the royal house of David had fallen into obscurity (Lk.1:27;2:4 cf. Am.9:11–12); priest, Levite, scribe and Pharisee all had utterly failed the people (Lk.11:42–52; Mt.9:36 cf Is.53:6). “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (Jn1:11).
So it is still. Long years ago, as a student preacher, I took a weekly deposit of the Jarvis Street Church to a downtown bank. The lady at the wicket made a few pert pleasantries, and then suddenly asked, “Tell me, could you prove the existence of God in one minute or less?” I was staggered; but then, as too often happens, the answer came afterwards. Can you prove the existence of God in a world filled with evil, suffering, injustice and death? Yes, I can prove it in just two words — JESUS CHRIST. “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” (1 Tim. 3:16)
The surprising incarnation of God among men is rejected, just because the Son of God appears as “a Man of sorrows” (53:3). “He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant” (53:2). He possesses nothing we usually expect to draw our eyes to Him or awaken our hopes in Him.
Isn't so much of our paper maché world built on “looking good”? Everyone from toddlers to teens, pop–stars to politicians spend their days prepping, preening to the chant, “Mirror, mirror on the wall…”
In ancient times, as in modern, image was substance. Israel's princely leader Moses was born “a goodly child” (Ex. 2:2). Israel's first king, Saul, won the crowds over by his stature (1 Sam. 10:23–24). David was “ruddy…goodly…beautiful to look upon” (1 Sam. 16:11–13). Absalom groomed for success (2 Sam.14:25–26).
Centuries of religious art have striven in vain to impress upon us an image of Christ, in painting, sculpture, tapestry and glass as the sum of all human beauty – whether He be the pale Englishman of Holman Hunt's “Light of the World” or the ebony dread–locked Jamaican Jesus I once saw in a Caribbean bookstore – always handsome, always haloed.
But “it ain't necessarily so.” In fact it necessarily “ain't so” at all! “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him.” (53:2) No good looks; no charm; no charisma – nothing. He is to be utterly ordinary.
If you had gone shopping in the market at Nazareth on any spring day, haggling and hoarding your salted fish, leeks and onions, standing in line at the bakery oven for the day's bread, you might have stood right behind the Lord Jesus in the queue. And you would have missed Him completely. His was the face of God – the face nobody noticed, nobody knew.
He has no advantage of face; and none of place either. “ He is despised and rejected of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief … He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” (53:3) He was a Nazarene – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn.1:46). He was a Galilean – “Search and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet!” (Jn.7:52). He was a carpenter — “Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him”. (Matthew 13:54–57). He taught as One having authority – “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” (John 7:15). “By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority?” (Mt.21:23) He came to seek and to save the lost – “This Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them!” (Lk.15:2) “Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! (Matthew 11:19).
In the end, “we hid as it were our faces from Him” (53:3) He was shunned like the loathsome lepers He had compassionately healed (Lev.13:45–46). “They all forsook Him, and fled” (Mk.14:50) “I know not this man of whom ye speak!” (Mk.14:71) “And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas…Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them. But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him… And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.” (Luke 23:18–24).
Why did it have to be that way?
Well, the TV screen shows our political leaders ‘parachute’ into ridings as candidates. Civic officials call press conferences in daycares or in shabby districts as a backdrop for a ‘photo op’. Well–meaning celebrities touch down from helicopters in far–off places of famine and hold up starving babies to appeal for charitable aid. All of them have just ‘dropped by,’ with all the best of intentions – but none of them really know what's on the ground.
When Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, He didn't just ‘drop by’.
He so entered our world to carry our griefs, and bear our sins in His own body on the Tree, that He become completely one of us – as most of us are, unknown, unnoticed. Remember the old spiritual? “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows but Jesus!”
“Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same …In all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren.” “He became poor, that ye by His poverty might be rich” (Hebrews 2:14–18; 2 Cor.8:9)
Have you believed our report? Is the arm of the LORD revealed to you?
“He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground.”