Text: Isaiah 53:1
[These notes were written many years ago, and do not represent how I would now structure and present a sermon on this passage. Nevertheless, I think they have some value as an exposition.)
The 53rd chapter of Isaiah needs little introduction. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most precious passages in OT, for it speaks to us in a unique way about our Saviour, centuries before his coming. And if it seems strange that an OT prophecy can predict in such minute detail the life and achievements of the coming servant of the Lord, the challenge is this: is there one other person, living or dead, from any age or land, to whom this could apply? Not one can be named. Acts 8: 26ff ‘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 Christ.’ The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is Jesus, who is called Christ.
We are to consider the first verse of this great chapter. ‘Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?’
Who is speaking here? The passage seems to be predicting the response of the early Jewish converts to Christ: those who had formerly despised the message of the suffering servant, but who have now come to recognise him as a triumphant Saviour. John 12:37-41 uses this verse to illustrate the rejection of Jesus by so many Jews of his day. ‘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.’ Paul applies this verse more generally to the response of many hearers of the gospel: Rom 10:16: ‘But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?’
Note the two-fold description of the message. From a human point of view, the message of the suffering servant is simply ‘our report’. But from the divine perspective, it is described as ‘the arm of the Lord’. Now, this is a figure of speech which speaks of God’s power, Psa 98:1: ‘O sing to the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory’. Scripture loves to speak of the power of God manifested in his work of salvation, Rom 1:16 : ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.’ I Cor 1:23f: ‘But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.’ What a mighty weapon is the gospel in God’s hands, II Cor 10:4 ‘For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds.’
[The gospel is the ‘arm of the Lord’, in that (a) if offers not mere words and ideas, but a life-giving Saviour, Jn 5:39f ‘Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.’; (b) it manifests the power of God, Rom 1:16; (c) it is the means of building a mighty kingdom and purchasing a precious inheritance for Christ, Psa 110:2: ‘The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.’ Mt 13:19 ‘the word of the kingdom’; (c) it overcomes all the enemies of Christ, Isa 11:4 ‘he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked’; II Thess 2:8 ‘And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.’ Rev 2:16 ‘Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.’ Lk 11:21f ‘When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.’ II Tim 2:26 ‘And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will’; (d) it is mighty in the conversion of souls, and in overcoming the perverseness of the human heart, Heb 4:12 ‘For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’]
The complaint, then, is this: ‘Who has believed the message of the gospel?’; and ‘Who has experienced its power?’ Who perceives in the humiliation and exaltation of Jehovah’s righteous servant a glorious display of the divine power in the great work of salvation? When Jesus died on the cross, and rose victorious from the grave, who amongst his own country-men, God’s chosen people, the Jews of that day, believed?
The obvious answer to this enquiry is, of course, that few thus believed and responded. Not, of course, that there was a complete lack of success, Acts 2:41: ‘Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls’; etc. But still, it is amazing that there should be so few: (a) few in comparison to what there should have been, given the quality of the evidence: Acts 26:26: ‘for this thing was not done in a corner.’ (b) few, in comparison to the many who rejected the gospel, Rom 9:27: Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, ‘Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved’; (c) few, in comparison to what the first apostles and evangelists would have wished and hoped for, Rom 10:1: ‘Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.
Isaiah’s prediction was fulfilled to the letter during the Saviour’s life on this earth. How few there were who like Simeon (Lk 2:25) were: ‘just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel’. As for the majority, Jn 1:10f: ‘He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.’ Jn 6:66-68: ‘From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.’ Mt:23:37: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’
Heralds of mercy still have cause to lament, ‘Who has believed…to whom has been revealed…?’ Let Christian workers not be discouraged. The fewness of believers is no disgrace either to the messenger or his message. And yet it is a cause of sorrow, and sometimes of great discouragement. ‘What a pity it is that such rich grace should be received in vain, that precious souls should perish at the pool’s side, because they will not step in and be healed!’ (Matthew Henry)
(a) Is the gospel the ‘arm of the Lord’? Then strive to see God in his word, I Thess 2:13: ‘For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.’ Receive the word with expectancy and resolution, Acts 10:33: ‘Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.’ The message will not always be proclaimed to you. We must all pass through the door which leads from time into eternity and hear its invitation no more. He calls – hear and believe the report. He stretches out his strong arms – accept and obey his gracious offer of life.
(b) Is the gospel the ‘arm of the Lord’? Then admire the power of God working in those who believe, Eph 1:19: ‘And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power’;
(c) Is the gospel the ‘arm of the Lord’? Then walk worthy of the it, I Pet 2: 9: ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’. Is the power of the gospel felt in our hearts? Has it humbled us for sin, I Cor 14:25? ‘And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.’ Has it comforted and refreshed the soul, Psa 94:19: ‘In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul.’; Jn 16:33: ‘These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’
The gospel of salvation is such a gracious and a powerful thing, and yet, as we have seen, so few seem to respond. Let us pray for God to stretch forth his arm in grace and mercy. I Cor 2:4: ‘And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God’.