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Worship Guide

Without a proper understanding of who Jesus was, what he did, and why he matters, the cross of Christ — a unique benchmark of the Christian faith — can seem like nothing more than a gruesome and confusing event in the history of the Church. But when we look back at the words of the prophet Isaiah, as Jesus did at the time of his death, we see the breathtaking reality that Jesus and no other could perform the ultimate act of love: losing his life so that we may gain ours. Watch this Good Friday sermon as we examine the sacrifice of Jesus, our servant and our king.

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    During this season of Lent, we have been engaging in a series in which we are exploring Jesus Through Isaiah’s Eyes. Today on this Good Friday, we come to one of the most poignant, perhaps the most well-known passage in all of Isaiah. One commentator calls this passage, Isaiah 52 and 53, the jewel in the crown of Isaiah’s theology and the focal point of his vision. 

    We know that Isaiah is quoted at least 66 times in the New Testament, and Jesus loved Isaiah. He read it. He memorized it. He meditated over it. Jesus knew that Isaiah was talking all about him. Even though Isaiah wrote centuries before Jesus' birth, he anticipated Jesus’ coming. That becomes especially clear in the passage that is before us tonight. 

    This passage, perhaps more than any other, reveals Jesus' true identity, his calling, and his purpose. Imagine Jesus pouring over the scroll of Isaiah. As Jesus read Isaiah, he understood that Isaiah was describing who he was, what he had come to do, and the difference that he was going to make. We can learn the same things. As we turn to Isaiah 52 and 53 on this Good Friday, I'd like us to learn three things. Isaiah shows us quite simply 1) who Jesus is, 2) what he did, and 3) why he matters

    13Behold, my servant shall act wisely;

        he shall be high and lifted up,

        and shall be exalted.

    14As many were astonished at you—

        his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,

        and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—

    15so 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.


    1Who has believed what he has heard from us?

        And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

    2For 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.

    3He 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.


    4Surely he has borne our griefs

        and carried our sorrows;

    yet we esteemed him stricken,

        smitten by God, and afflicted.

    5But he was pierced for our transgressions;

        he was crushed for our iniquities;

    upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

        and with his wounds we are healed.

    6All we like sheep have gone astray;

        we have turned—every one—to his own way;

    and the Lord has laid on him

        the iniquity of us all.


    7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

        yet he opened not his mouth;

    like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

        and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

        so he opened not his mouth.

    8By oppression and judgment he was taken away;

        and as for his generation, who considered

    that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

        stricken for the transgression of my people?

    9And they made his grave with the wicked

        and with a rich man in his death,

    although he had done no violence,

        and there was no deceit in his mouth.

    Who Jesus Is

    First, let's consider what Isaiah 52 and 53 tell us about who Jesus is — his true identity. The one thing you need to remember is that Isaiah is not only a book of prophecy; it's also a book of poetry. As you read through the book of Isaiah, there should be at least two songs playing in your head at the same time. I wonder if you've ever had the experience of getting a song stuck in your head. Maybe you can even sing the words, but you've never stopped to pay attention to the lyrics. As we make our way through Isaiah, I want you to imagine that you haven't heard these songs before, and I want you to listen to the lyrics with fresh ears. 

    A Conquering King

    There are two songs playing, and the theme of the first song is about a conquering king. Isaiah speaks of a royal figure who will sit on the throne of David, and usually we hear this song around Christmas time. We sing about how there will come a child to be born. Isaiah says in chapter nine,

    “Of the increase of his government and of peace

        there will be no end,

    on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

        to establish it and to uphold it

    with justice and with righteousness

        from this time forth and forevermore.”

    Isaiah speaks of a royal figure who will be anointed by God's Spirit. That's what it means to be the Messiah. Messiah simply means “anointed one.” Isaiah writes in Isaiah 61,

    “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

        because the Lord has anointed me

    to bring good news to the poor; 

        he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim liberty to the captives,

        and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 

    to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

    This royal figure will be anointed to rule, to establish peace, and to bring God's justice. But what we often fail to appreciate, because we don't sing this part of the song at Christmastime, is that this royal figure will also smash God's enemies with a rod of iron. Listen, for example, to Isaiah 11: 

    “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

        and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

    and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

        and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

    This royal figure will bring God's peace and justice. He'll bring an end to evil and violence. He is presented as a conquering hero who will destroy all of God's enemies. If this is the picture of the messiah in Isaiah, it's no wonder that people in Jesus' day assumed that the messiah would raise an army and kick out the oppressors and drive the Romans out of Jerusalem. That's the one song, the first theme: a conquering king. 

    A Servant

    But then, the theme of the second song is about a servant. We looked at this a few weeks ago. On the one hand, God refers to this servant as Israel, which of course makes us think of the people of God, the nation of Israel. But then God clarifies that he's going to send Israel to Israel in order to bring Israel back to himself. And therefore God cannot be thinking of Israel as the nation, but rather God's servant as Israel represents a true Israelite — the true Israel, who is going to do for Israel what Israel couldn't do for itself. This true Israelite figure will do and be everything that Israel was supposed to be and do for the world: to be a light to the nations, to renew God's people, and more than that, to restore the whole world, to bring about a whole new creation. 

    But then, when we come to Isaiah 52, we discover now something shocking and surprising, that this servant will not only renew God's people and restore the whole world, but this servant will suffer and die. Not only that, but his death is described in the most violent and gruesome terms. He will be pierced. He will be crushed. He will be oppressed. He will be afflicted. His appearance will be marred beyond all human semblance. That is how God will bring his people back to himself so that he might dwell with us. 

    So you have both of those songs playing in your head: on the one hand, the theme of the conquering king, and then on the other hand, the theme of the suffering servant. What you have to realize is that when people read the scroll of Isaiah, they had to assume that Isaiah was talking about two different people. How could it be otherwise? The servant might have to suffer, but in that case, the servant couldn't possibly be the messiah. Or if the servant was the messiah, he couldn't be a suffering one. Or if the servant was the messiah then the suffering was reversed, because the job of the messiah was not to absorb suffering but to inflict it — to inflict it upon God's enemies. 

    Nobody would have ever dreamed that these two figures describe the same person. No one, that is, until Jesus. Because as Jesus poured over the scroll of Isaiah, he knew that Isaiah was describing him as both the conquering king and the suffering servant. He understood that his vocation was to end violence by suffering violence. His calling was to bring an end to injustice by suffering injustice. That's why Isaiah 53:1 begins with this question: “Who has believed our message? Who could possibly believe our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The heart of the Christian message is gospel, good news. In Isaiah 52, Isaiah proclaims this good news. The good news is, “Your God reigns. Your God is going to come to your rescue. But more than that, your God is going to come back to you in person.”

    Isaiah has a rather unique way of describing God's activity in the world. He refers to it as the arm of the Lord. To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He uses that same expression in Isaiah 52:10, where he writes,

    “The Lord has bared his holy arm

        before the eyes of all the nations,

    and all the ends of the earth shall see

        the salvation of our God.”

    “Our Lord has bared his holy arm.” I like to picture the logo for Arm and Hammer baking soda. “The Lord has bared his holy arm.” In other words, when God wants to come to the rescue of his people, he rolls up his sleeves and gets down to work. But here's the surprising thing. Who would ever believe this message? It's too crazy to believe. No one would have ever imagined that when God rolls up his sleeves and decides to get his hands dirty in order to come to the rescue of his people, that that would mean that God himself will become a wounded, bleeding servant. It's too shocking to believe. No one would have ever guessed it, except for Jesus. Jesus understood that he was both the conquering king and the suffering servant at one in the same time. 

    What He Did

    If that's who Jesus is, secondly Isaiah tells us what Jesus came to do. Jesus is called to be the suffering servant. But that only raises the question: Why? Why did Jesus have to die? Why did the messiah have to die? It's the question that we should ask on Good Friday. Why did Jesus have to die? Why all the blood and guts? Let me give you two wrong answers to that question and one right one. 


    Wrong answer No. 1 is that some would say the reason why Jesus died was to provide us with a moral example for how we should live. Some theologians would say that Jesus dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice despite deadly opposition. These theologians would claim that Jesus did not actually bear our individual personal sins. How could anybody do that? But Jesus did die because of his resistance to public sins like religious bigotry, political corruption, mob violence. That's what got Jesus killed. But if that's the only reason why Jesus died, then what exactly are we supposed to learn from his example? That we shouldn't speak up for ourselves? We shouldn't defend ourselves? We should let people walk all over us, torture us, kill us? What would be the good of that? And how would that help establish justice or protect the vulnerable? That's wrong answer No. 1, that Jesus died merely to provide us with a moral example for how we should live.  


    Wrong answer No. 2 is that the reason why Jesus died was to show us the full extent of God's love for us. The cross, these theologians would say, doesn't have anything to do with our sin or guilt. The cross doesn't have anything to do with God's holiness or justice or wrath against sin and evil. But rather, the cross is simply a demonstration of love, and when we see the depth of Jesus' love for us demonstrated on the cross, that's what is meant to call forth and to elicit our love for God in return. 

    That can only be partially right at best, and let me explain why. Let me give you a little analogy. Let's say someone comes up and says to me, “Jason, I want to prove to you the depth of my love,” and then they run out into the middle of Lexington Avenue and get hit by a van and die. Would I look at that person and say, “Wow! Look how that person loved me.” No, I would say, “What is wrong with that person? How silly, how foolish, how stupid! What were they thinking?” By contrast, let's say someone close to me sees that I'm standing in the crosswalk on Lexington Avenue, and I'm about to get hit by a van. And out of love, they run out in the street and they push me out of the way so that they are struck instead of me. They die so that I might live. Then I would say, “Look how that person loved me.” The point is that there needs to be a reason for death in order for it to mean something — in order for it to mean anything. 


    If those are the two wrong answers to the question “Why did Jesus die?”, what's the right answer? The right answer, the only one that makes sense, is that Jesus died as our substitute. Jesus didn't die merely to provide us with a moral example for how to live. He didn't die merely to demonstrate the depth of his love for us. But he died in our place as our substitute. Isaiah draws this out powerfully and compellingly. He shows us three things about Jesus' death. He shows us that his death was 1) voluntary, 2) vicarious, and 3) victorious


    First of all, Isaiah shows us that Jesus' death was voluntary. Jesus willingly submitted himself to the cross. In chapter 53:7 Isaiah says, 

    “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

        yet he opened not his mouth;

    like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

        and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

        so he opened not his mouth.”

    Let me ask you a question: Why is a lamb just as silent before it's about to be slaughtered as when it is about to be sheared? Why doesn't a lamb open its mouth under either circumstance? The answer is because sheep are stupid. It doesn't know what is about to happen to it. But Jesus is not like that. Jesus didn't open his mouth before Pontius Pilate, and Pilate was amazed that he said nothing to defend himself. Why is that? Is that because Jesus was stupid? Is that because Jesus was ignorant? Is it because he didn't know what was going to happen to him? No, it was because he willingly submitted himself to death. He let it happen. His death was voluntary. 


    Secondly, Isaiah shows us that his death was vicarious. He dies, not because of anything that he had done, but only because of what we have done. In Isaiah 53:4, Isaiah writes, 

    “Surely he has borne our griefs

        and carried our sorrows.”

    Those words “borne” and “carried” literally mean to take up, to shoulder, to bear on behalf of someone else. When we consider the sufferings of this servant, we might assume that he must have done something to deserve it. Isaiah admits that at first: 

    “yet we esteemed him stricken,

        smitten by God, and afflicted.”

    But that's not the answer. Isaiah corrects that misperception, and he shows us that we don't truly understand Jesus’ sufferings until we see that he took up, he carried, he shouldered not what belonged to him but what belongs to us. Verse 5 is emphatic. He says, “He was pierced for our transgressions.” The pronoun “he” there is deeply emphatic in the Hebrew. He and no other was pierced; he and no other was crushed. Both of those words speak of a violent death. To be pierced doesn't mean to be pricked. Rather, it means to be run through with a spear. It means to be impaled with something like a nine-inch iron spike. To be crushed, according to Lamentations 3, means to suffer cruel agonies that eventually result in death. It means to be crushed, to be trampled underfoot, to be treated as nothing and turned into dust. Why did all this happen to him? He was pierced for our transgressions — meaning our willful rebellion against God — and he was crushed for our iniquities. The word iniquity in Hebrew basically means bentness. Our sin, our rebellion, bends us out of shape. It twists us. It corrupts us. It destroys us from within. Jesus' death was voluntary, and it was vicarious. He took up and bore what belongs rightly to us. 


    Thirdly, Isaiah shows us that his death was victorious. Despite all appearances, Jesus' death on a cross was not a defeat. It was a victory because Jesus accomplished the desired result. Upon him was the chastisement that has brought us peace. With his wounds we are healed. Our rebellion against God has led to conflict with God. But Jesus bears the burden of that conflict in order that peace might be restored. Our iniquities have bent us out of shape. But by his wounds, Jesus restores us to wholeness. This is the divine exchange. Jesus takes what is ours and gives us what is his. He died as a substitute, and substitution lies at the very heart of both sin and salvation. The essence of sin as human beings is substituting ourselves for God, putting ourselves in the place where only God deserves to be. But salvation is God substituting himself for us, putting himself in the place that only we deserve to be. In our sin, we say, “Your life for mine.” We take advantage of others. We take advantage of God in order to get for ourselves. But Jesus, in our salvation, says to us, “My life for yours.” He gives his own life for us so that we might be restored. 

    Why He Matters

    Jesus is the conquering king and the suffering servant who dies on the cross in our place as our substitute. But why then does he matter? What difference does all of this make? I’d like to go back and touch on everything I just said about an example, and about love, and about substitution, but in reverse order. Let me add a word to what I previously said. 


    Let me begin with substitution. If you're not yet a Christian, or if you're not sure if you're a Christian, here's the first thing you need to see. The cross doesn't make any sense at all unless you realize that Jesus is a substitute. But more than that, the cross won't do you any good unless you realize that you need a substitute. We need to be able to take the words of Isaiah 53:6 and make them our own. Here, Isaiah writes, 

    “All we like sheep have gone astray;

        we have turned—every one—to his own way.”

    That's the essence of sin. Each of us has turned to our own way. It's the Frank Sinatra approach to life. I did it my way. Remember the lyrics to that song “My Way”? 

    “Regrets, I've had a few,

    But then again, too few to mention.

    I did what I had to do,

    And saw it through without exemption.

    I planned each charted course,

    Each careful step along the byway,

    And more, much more than this,

    I did it my way.”

    I know it's Good Friday, but maybe you'll permit me to tell you a funny story about Frank Sinatra. Nils Hanson was a longtime member of this congregation for many years, and he died a year ago at the age of 100. The very first time that my wife, Ashley, and I had dinner with Nils, he told me that he knew Frank Sinatra as a young man. I said, “That’s interesting. What was Frank Sinatra like?” Without skipping a beat, Nils said, “Frank Sinatra was a jerk,” although he used much more colorful language than that. Apparently Nils Hanson almost got in a fistfight with Sinatra because Nils was out on a date, and Sinatra started hitting on his girlfriend. He tried to steal his girl right from underneath his nose. So Sinatra was a jerk. He did it his way. 

    But what I want you to see tonight is that that is the very essence of sin. Do you do it your way, or do you do it God's way? Here's the test. If your way and God's way come into conflict with one another, which one takes priority and which way gives? Which one? If you say, ”I'll choose God's way if it seems wise to me, if it makes sense to me, if it works for me, if it feels good for me,” then you're not serious. You're treating God's way as mere advice. You could take it or leave it. It's just an opinion. What really counts, what really matters, is your way. You're not serious until you can trust that God's way is infinitely wise, infinitely sensible, infinitely practical, and infinitely good regardless of how you feel about it. Then, and only then, have you made God the Lord of your life. Until then, you're your own master. You're your own lord. You're following your own way. That's the essence of sin, and the wages of sin is death. 

    The Scriptures make abundantly clear that sin — rebellion against God — always leads to death. That's the natural consequence. Death is the ultimate result of sin. So here's the thing: If God is going to defeat and destroy death, what does he need to do? He needs to cut it off at its source. He needs to defeat and destroy sin. That's what the cross accomplishes. 

    “All we like sheep have gone astray;

        we have turned—every one—to his own way.

    and the Lord has laid on him

        the iniquity of us all.”

    Jesus dies so that we might live. The Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear in Romans 8:3 that in Christ, God condemned not Jesus. No, God condemned sin so that he would never condemn you or me. That is the promise of the gospel: if we put our trust in Christ — if we are in Christ — then there is not now nor will there ever be any condemnation, because God has already condemned sin in Christ. So the first thing that you have to see is that the cross is for rebels. Let me just tell you, there are only rebels here tonight. But all we have to do is admit that that is what we are, and the cross is for us. 


    If you do — if you can say, “the sacrifice of Jesus was for me” — then the cross does become a sign of his love. When you look at the cross, you see not what Jesus deserves but what every sin deserves. So in your mind's eye, on this Good Friday, when you see Jesus pierced, impaled, crushed, pummeled, the first thing that you should think is, “It should have been me.” But the second thing you should wonder is, “Why? Why would he do that for me?” The only answer is love. In Romans 5, the apostle Paul says that not very many people would be willing to die for somebody else, even if they were a good person. But Jesus was willing to die for the ungodly. God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. So what held Jesus to the cross? It wasn't those nine inch nails. It wasn't even our sin. It was love. If you were to ask what is it that Jesus ultimately died of? He died of love. The kingdom of God runs on love. 


    If you see that Jesus died as your substitute and as a demonstration of his love, then — and only then — Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross does become an example for how we are meant to live our lives as his followers. The apostle Peter alludes very clearly and quite generously — liberally — to Isaiah 53 in 1 Peter 2. There he writes that Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps. The word that Peter uses there is interesting. The word “example” literally refers to a pattern of letters over which children would learn to trace their A-B-Cs. So what is Peter telling us here? He's saying that once we receive the free grace that Jesus offers us through the cross, then the cross becomes the pattern over which we are meant to trace our lives as his followers. Even though Jesus is the conquering king, he came not to inflict suffering on others but rather to absorb it himself, and then as the recipients of his forgiveness and his grace, we are meant to follow in the footsteps of our suffering servant, so that in all of our relationships, even towards those who might seek to do us harm, we too are called not to inflict suffering and pain on others but rather to absorb it for their good. Then we too become people who say, “My life for yours.” That is who Jesus is through Isaiah’s eyes. That's what he did, and that's why it matters. That is what we celebrate at this table.

    Would you please pray with me? 

    Father, as we consider Jesus' true identity, as the conquering king as well as the suffering servant, help us on this Good Friday to understand why Jesus died, first and foremost as our substitute. When we receive his substitution in our place, then we see, now for the first time, the true depth of his love, that he was willing to die even for us, the ungodly. When we realize that love, then we can take up the example to follow in the footsteps of our suffering servant by becoming people who say, “My life for yours.” Work that transformation in our hearts and in our lives by your grace this night. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.