Tag Archives: Mercy

The Suffering Servant

[warning long post ahead!  For the sake of a continuous thought I cannot break it up into parts]

As we’ve seen, questions and objections have come up regarding the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ that we’ve been studying here recently.  A primary objection being made comes from Isaiah 53:4.  If you haven’t been following, please go back and read previous posts before reading this one, Survey of the Cross, Substitutionary Atonement: Response 1, Response 2.   We cannot adequately deal with verse 4 of Isaiah’s 53rd chapter, unless we maintain the context of what many have come to call the passage of the Suffering Servant, which actually begins at Isaiah 52:13.

Here is the passage:

“13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.  14 As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – 15 so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Isaiah 52:13-15 

I want to break here briefly to point out that although Isaiah is the author of this passage, it is the Lord God who is speaking.  In the phrase “my servant”, we see the possessive pronoun “my” referring to God the Father, while servant here refers to God the Son.  He is calling Jesus His servant.  We see this exact same language in Isaiah 42:1 where the Lord again is speaking as He says, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  There can be no question that the voice in either of these passages from Isaiah is the Lord God.  However, note how in the beginning of the next chapter, the voice changes back to Isaiah (and the ‘remnant’, .i.e. we/us). 

“Who has believed what he has learned from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  Isaiah 53:1-4

Let’s pause here again and review what we’ve just read.  In the opening of this chapter, Isaiah is referring first to himself as a prophet commissioned by God who was given a message to deliver, which the people would (did) reject. (see Isaiah 6:8-13)  Additional context is provided by the Apostle Paul, as he quotes this same verse in Romans 10:16 in the context of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  So we see the connection between the prophets of Isaiah’s day and those who preached the Gospel in Paul’s day.  The importance of this really lies as a side note to our discussion, but maintaining biblical context is critical. 

In verses 2-3 we see a description or picture painted by Isaiah of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He was not born as an earthly king would be, in a castle with the best of amenities.  He was born in a lowly manager, to a poor family and there was nothing physically commanding or special about how He looked.  Then Isaiah prophesies (it’s interesting how this is hundreds of years before Christ’s death, but Isaiah speaks as though he is looking backwards, not forwards) that Jesus would be “despised and rejected by men”.  Just as I pointed out that the voice speaking changes from God at the end of chapter 52 to Isaiah now, we must also follow Isaiah’s description of who is doing and receiving the actions that he is prophesying of.   In verse  3, he tells us that it is men that (will) despised and rejected Christ.  He wasn’t respected and was largely ignored with respect to being God’s Son.

In the first part of verse 4, we see a passage quoted by Matthew in his gospel account, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” Matthew 8:17  The word “griefs” in Isaiah’s passage is better translated sicknesses, so as we read in Matthew’s context, Jesus has just healed many and in an even larger context all sickness and disease will be abolished in heaven, because of Jesus.  So the prophecy of Isaiah reached its first fulfillment in the earthly ministry of Jesus.

The second part of verse 4 is where the objection to penal substitutionary atonement has been made.  The objection follows like this, “Isaiah states that “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” and this language clearly indicates that the speculation of the Jews that Jesus was punished by God for the sins of the people was an error in the minds of the Jewish people.  So it follows that Jesus did die for sins, but was not punished by God, nor did He receive God’s wrath for those sins.  In summary, this verse tells us that it is a Jewish error to assume that Jesus took the punishment from God for our sins” 

One immediate problem with this objection is that Isaiah has not even made the connection yet between Jesus and sin, so it’s error to assume this.  It’s actually taking the remainder of the passage and reading it back into verse 4 and it leads to a faulty conclusion.

There are several additional problems with this objection, but first let’s summarize what we’ve been learning through Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus’ suffering and death.  We started with God announcing that His Son Jesus was His servant, so it follows that He is going forth to do the will of God and serve Him in some capacity.  God Himself tells us of the physical beating and disfiguring that takes place on the cross, “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.”  Then He says the following, “so shall he sprinkle many nations.”  What is being sprinkled here by Jesus?  God Himself is saying that His Son will sprinkle His blood on many nations.  Remember back to our first post on the Day of Atonement  when the high priest sacrificed a goat and took the blood and sprinkled it on the mercy seat, thereby making propitiation.  Here God is alluding to the Old Testament atonement, but is linking it to His Son, who makes THE propitiation.  As we will see in a future post, Jesus not only fulfilled the office of High Priest with His atonement, but was Himself the sacrifice.  Continuing our summary of what we’ve read so far, we then looked at how Isaiah goes on to shed light on Jesus’ earthly ministry and as we’ve seen his prophecy was considered fulfilled by Matthew. 

Now back to the objection that has been raised, “Yet, we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”  The little phrase “yet, we esteemed” is actually 1 Hebrew word, chashab, which the ESV and KJV have translated into the phrase you just read.  This word, in the Hebrew, gives the idea of “to think” or “make judgment”.  So if I were to simply explain here what is being said by Isaiah, it would be this, “He [Jesus] healed our sicknesses and diseases, but we thought He was punished and beaten by God in order to be humbled by God.”  The objection stated here is correct in saying that the Jews had the wrong idea about why Jesus was being crucified, but the objection itself is wrong in dismissing God the Father from the equation.  Let’s look at first why the Jewish thought was wrong.

In Matthew 26 we read of Jesus’ trial before the high priest Caiaphas, 62 And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”

In this passage we see Caiaphas accusing Jesus of blasphemy and the judgment of death being declared.  On what basis were they claiming that Jesus deserved death for alleged blasphemy?  The law, namely as defined in Leviticus 24:16, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death.”  When Isaiah says that “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” he is saying that the people wrongly thought that Jesus was being punished for blasphemy.  This is where they got it wrong, because Jesus really is the Son of God; it was not blasphemous for Him to say so.  However, notice that the Jews rightly recognized that God upholds the holiness of His name and His law and it is He that executes judgment based on violations of His law.  The Jews recognized that a violation of God’s law resulted in punishment by God to the offender.  They understood that, but wrongly accounted Jesus as a blasphemer.

Remember earlier when I said it’s important for us to realize who is doing the action in these verses and who is receiving the action?  In this verse, Isaiah has established that God the Father is doing the action and God the Son is receiving the action and this is not broken, until he tells us.  In verse 5, he has not broken off of this idea yet, but simply corrects the faulty view that the Jews had of believing Jesus died for His sin of blasphemy.  He clearly states the actual reason for Jesus’ death, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”  We must ask here, given our context, who is administering the wounding, crushing, and chastisement?  Is it men or God?  Obviously men are carrying out the action, but is it ultimately at their hand that Jesus is suffering?  No!  If that were the case, then Isaiah would be saying that men punished Jesus for taking the sins of men.  Not only is that supported nowhere in Scripture, it doesn’t even makes good sense.  Isaiah is saying here that Jesus wasn’t punished by God for His own sin of blasphemy (which He was accused of), but instead he was wounded and crushed for our sins.  He was chastised (muwcar) meaning disciplined or corrected, which gives the idea of punishment in order to bring about corrective action, by God and this brought us (believers) peace. 

In Romans 5:1 we read of this peace made with God, “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Later in this same chapter, Paul states, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Romans 5:9  Unbelievers are under the wrath of God (John 3:36), there is no peace between them and Holy God.  But believers, those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, have peace with God.  Where did the wrath that was once on them go?  Did it simply vanish?  No!  As we read in this passage from Isaiah, God poured it out on His Son by wounding, crushing, and punishing Jesus for the sins of all those who believe.  “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” Isaiah 53:10

If you don’t understand or can’t accept that Jesus took the punishment that was due to you, if you are a believer, then you need to ask yourself why.  Why don’t you like it?  Because it’s too unbelievable?  Because it’s too bloody, too gruesome?  That is the amazing love of Jesus Christ for His people.  That He was willing to lay His life down for His sheep and take the punishment, namely the wrath of God, that was due to them.  Unbeliever, you have but 2 choices, face the wrath of God for yourself for your sins.  Or place your faith in Jesus Christ, the one who absorbed the wrath of God for sinners just like you.  Ask God for mercy.  Then repent and believe.

Is Social Justice Biblical?

I realize that the title above will be an unpopular assertion, but before you rush to dismiss it or to leave a contrary response, please hear me out.  Social justice is without question a huge buzz word these days within not only the secular media, but within the evangelical church as well.  Because of this dichotomy, the phrase is often misused, misapplied, and generally flawed in its assumptions.  Here is the definition of social justice from Wikipedia  :  “Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.”  Interesting, though a broad definition to say the least.  The idea that social justice creates an “egalitarian society” essentially means equality of religion, politics, economics, social status, or culture, i.e. that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status.  (see also Wikipedia : Egalitarianism)  Digging a little further into the definition of social justice we find the following statement: “Social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution.”  When we hear the term “social justice” from the media, this is generally in reference to the redistribution of wealth mentioned here.  Primarily taking from the “rich” and giving to the “poor” by means of taxation or other government mandate.  Is this the same message that so many evangelicals are trying to convey?  Well, because social justice is such a vague term, it mostly likely depends on who you ask as to what definition you get.  In his newly released book Generous Justice, pastor Tim Keller offers the following distinction:

“I used the term “generous justice” because many people make a distinction between justice and charity. They say that if we give to the poor voluntarily, it’s just compassion and charity. But Job says that if I’m not generous with my money, I’m offending God, which means it’s not an option and it is unjust by definition to not share with the poor.”[1]

 

It would be helpful at this point if we defined “justice” and “charity”.  Dictionary.com defines justice as “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness” also, “the administering of deserved punishment or reward”.  The same site defines charity as “generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless; something given to a person in need; alms; benevolence; Christian love; agape.”  Just as Keller states, quite the distinction, but his own statement is troubling.  He asserts that some say giving to the poor voluntarily is compassion and charity but that the Bible claims a lack of generosity is offensive to God and thereby is not voluntary, but a mandate.  The difference between these two statements of Keller’s can be summarized by saying: “I want to give to the poor” vs. “I have to give to the poor”.  The former is a movement of the heart, the latter a letter of the law.  To his statement Keller adds, “It’s biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away.” [2] Does that sound any different than the definition we read earlier which is so prevalent in the media?  Quite simply, it’s no different.  To say that “we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away” is to assume somehow that the “rich” of this world are indebted to the “poor”.  Where in the Bible does it state that?  (Actually Keller’s statement can be argued as to ask based on what standard is someone defined as rich while another is defined as poor?, but that might be a separate post)  What Keller has done is to erroneously replace the government mandate with biblical mandate, tag it with the social justice label, and state that it basically calls for redistribution of wealth also.  This is not in line with Scripture as he asserts, but is quite contrary as we’ll see in a moment.

Tim Keller did not provide the reference to Job in his interview with Christianity Today, so we are unable to follow up on his statement, but other times he has used Job 31:16 as a defense for his argument so it is there we can look for Biblical evidence.  In Job 31, Job is giving his final defense, his final argument as to his undeserved condition and in verse 16 he includes “If I have withheld anything that the poor desired….”  Is Job saying here that he neglected to give the poor as much of his money as he could possibly give away because he owed it to them?  Well we know that in Job 1:3 he was the richest in the land and we know in Job 42:10 that the Lord restored to Job twice as much as he had before his dire circumstances.  To conclude from Job 31:16 that Job was obligated to give to the poor is a poor exegesis for the purposes of defending the concept of social justice.  Job wasn’t talking about compulsion to give as a duty, but rather neglect to give from an improper heart.  In 2 Corinthians 9:7 we read “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Keller is not alone in his call for social justice, Emergent Church leader, author, and activist Brian McLaren asks, “And could our preoccupation with individual salvation from hell after death distract us from speaking prophetically about injustice in our world today?”[3] McLaren adds, When Matthew, Mark, and Luke talk about the Kingdom of God, it’s always closely related to social justice…. The gospel of the kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth for everybody, but we’re interested in getting away from earth entirely as individuals, and into heaven instead.”[4] Equally troubling are the views of pastor and author Rob Bell, who shares McLaren’s association with the Emergent Church.  In a 2009 interview with Christianity Today the interviewer asks Bell to expound on his statement of “Jesus wants to save us from making the Good News about another world and not this one.” To which Bell replies,

“The story is about God’s intentions to bring about a new heaven and a new earth, and the story begins here with shalom—shalom between each other and with our Maker and with the earth. The story line is that God intends to bring about a new creation, this place, this new heaven and earth here. And that Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning, essentially, of the future; this great Resurrection has rushed into the present.”[5]

Note here that the resurrection Bell talks of has nothing to do with Jesus dying for the sins of those who believe, has nothing to do with forgiveness of sin, with grace, mercy, God’s wrath poured out on His own Son.  There’s no talk of becoming a new creation in Christ when those who believe in Him are raised from the dead with Christ.  No, instead Bell’s talk of “resurrection” signifies the beginning of a new heaven and earth, i.e. one of the central goals of social justice that McLaren mentioned earlier and the primary focus of the Emergent Church mission.

What then is our response to this?  Am I saying that as members who make up the body of the Church that we should not help the poor, widowed, and orphaned?  Certainly not!  What I am saying is that phrases like “social justice” are not always benign and laced with good intentions.  They are often agenda driven and in this case can often be used to subvert the true Gospel message***.  Social justice was spawned out of liberalism in the late 19th century and today’s movement is simply repackaging of that same program.  Theologian and Author Dr. R.C. Sproul offers much needed balance on this topic,

“The false assumption of this so-called social justice was that material wealth can be gained only by means of the exploitation of the poor. Ergo, for a society to be just, the wealth must be redistributed by government authority. In reality, this so-called social justice degenerated into social injustice, where penalties were levied on those who were legitimately productive and non-productivity was rewarded — a bizarre concept of justice indeed.”[7] 

Likewise, Sproul provides guidance for direction of the Church with regards to helping those in need, “The choice that the church has is never between personal salvation and mercy ministry. It is rather a both/and proposition. Neither pole can be properly swallowed by the other. To reduce Christianity either to a program of social welfare or to a program of personal redemption results in a truncated gospel that is a profound distortion.[8]

Our definition from earlier was that social justice should be a means by which all men are brought to equality, through economic means, regardless of race, religion, economic status, social status, culture, etc.  This however assumes that we are on unequal ground from the start.  When it comes to equality we have 2 distinct biblical themes which we can apply: 1) All men are equally created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27) 2) None are righteous and all have fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:10, 3:23) It is helpful for us to return to the ground level and work up from there.  We must ask then based on the biblical equality of men, what is justice?  From our dictionary.com definition earlier justice was “the administering of deserved punishment or reward”.  From the Bible we read of justice in Isaiah 42:1-4:

1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon Him;
   He will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up His voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed He will not break,
   and a faintly burning wick He will not quench;
   He will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged
   till He has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his law.

The ESV Study Bible offers the following note on this passage: Justice is “the key word in 42:1-4.  In the Bible, justice means fulfilling mutual obligations in a manner consistent with God’s moral law.  Biblical justice creates the perfect human society.  The messianic servant is the only hope for a truly just world.”  Biblical justice is dependent on the Messiah, Christ Jesus.  Like Isaiah says, He will establish justice.    

Additionally we find that based on the sinful condition of man as we read in Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death.  Therefore justice from God would be giving each person what they deserved, namely eternal death.  So it is here we ask, is it justice we want?  Or is it perhaps mercy that we desire?  The justice that society deserves is not wealth and equality in this life, but eternal damnation and separation from God.  4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:4-6 Perhaps a more biblical phrase would be “social mercy”.  We as a church body of believers are not called to work toward justice as defined extra-biblically, but to show mercy to those who need it.  It is not the Church’s job to demand justice and work towards that end in order to create a utopia of equality and better earthly lives for everyone.  Nor is it her role to prop up and become enabler to those who are able but unwilling.  The role of the Church is to preach the Gospel and in doing so establish mercy ministries along the way.  We are to show mercy because that is what God showed us, not justice.  We were naked and He clothed us with righteousness.  We were starved and He gave us the Bread of Life.  Thirsty yet Jesus provided Living Water.  Homeless but even now He prepares a mansion for us.  This isn’t justice, it’s mercy through the grace of God that has been given to us.  We cannot be so quick to follow men and jump on board their plans to execute justice in this world without examining what it is they are saying.  Instead we should follow Christ, the one who was executed for our justice.  He alone can bring justice to an unjust, sinful world. 

Resources:

1 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/december/10.69.html?start=1

2 Ibid

3 McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, p. 84.

4 Ibid., p. 149.

5 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/april/26.34.html?start=2

6 http://www.svchapel.org/resources/articles/21-church-trends/505-the-emerging-church-part-2#_edn33

7 http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/do-we-believe-whole-gospel/

8. Ibid.

***For more insight into Keller’s point of view, see also his interview with Kevin DeYoung: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/10/26/interview-with-tim-keller-on-generous-justice/