Jesus - The Suffering Servant
Fr. Thomas Hopko · September 10, 2009
What was the nature and purpose of the death of Christ as depicted in the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah? Get your Orthodox Study Bible out and follow along as Fr. Thomas teaches us verse by verse.
We have been reflecting on Jesus as the pais of the Lord, the servant of the Lord. That word, “servant,” we mentioned, “pais,” it’s also translated “son” or “boy” or “child,” and it is definitely used of Jesus in the New Testament, as we have seen [in] the sermons and prayers of Peter and John at the beginning of the Book of Acts, as well as other references to the prophecies of Isaiah. Perhaps the most referred to, the servant language in Isaiah most referred to in the New Testament and generally in Christian history, certainly in the Church’s worship, the Liturgy of the Church, is that very last, they call them the “hymns of the servant of the Lord, the ebed Yahweh, that’s found [in Isaiah]. It begins in the 52nd chapter and proceeds through the entire 53rd chapter of the Prophet Isaiah.
This is a very important chapter, because it’s very controversial. Basically, there are disputes about how it is to be understood, how it is supposed to be understood, particularly in relationship to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross and his death upon the Cross. Why is it that that death of Jesus on the Cross and his whole Passion, why is it that it saves us? How is it that through that act, God is reconciling us to himself? How is it that through that act everything is made right, and that we are allowed by faith in Christ crucified to become the righteousness of God [ourselves]? How does that all work?
And we will be thinking about this, and we will never, perhaps ever, be able to describe it or explain it fully and properly, because there’s so many elements to it that have to be contemplated together. And also because, in my opinion—this is my personal opinion—there have been so many misunderstandings about it, so many explanations that don’t really seem to be according to the Scripture, and certainly do not seem to be according to the interpretation of these texts in the ancient Christian Church and particularly in the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Because, to put it most simply, this text, this particular reference to the servant of the Lord and its application to Jesus, is often oversimplified, but it’s interpreted in the way that God Almighty is angry at the human race and all human beings, they are unrighteous, they are sinners, and that he has to punish them because of their sin, and that the only way that the humans could be reconciled to God is if they are sufficiently punished. The law has been broken and the only way that things can be healed and restored and reconciled and redeemed is when a sufficient punishment is made, a kind of retributive justice. A sin has been committed, and some kind of payment has to be made so that that sin can be taken away, and that payment is made by being punished.
And therefore, in simplistic view, it’s understood by many people that God Almighty is punishing his Son Jesus on the Cross, and Jesus is vicariously getting punished in the place of us: he is substituting himself for us; we should be being punished, but he is being punished. Since he is being punished and he is God’s Son and he is not only perfectly innocent as a man, but he is also God, he is divine, therefore that punishment restores us to communion with God and reconciles us, because it has fulfilled the conditions of the law that require the necessary punishment.
As listeners of Ancient Faith Radio know, my own opinion is that this is just totally incorrect, and there’s got to be a different way of understanding it, and that, as a matter of fact, in the New Testament, particularly the writings of St. John and St. Paul, there is another way of understanding it. And that way of understanding it has literally nothing to do with punishment. The very word “punishment” is never even found there. You don’t find the word “punishment” at all, anywhere, in the writings of the New Testament. There’s not one word in the New Testament anywhere that Jesus is punished or receives the punishment that’s due to us and he gets punished in our place.
In general, even the adjective “vicarious,” like “vicarious suffering,” is not a biblical word at all. You don’t find it in the New Testament, that’s for sure. Of course—and I shouldn’t say “of course,” but I would say “of course”—anyone who’s familiar with Orthodox Christian Holy Week, anyone who goes to church during Holy Week hears exactly this Isaian prophecy about the suffering servant. It’s read during services at Holy Week in the Church, as also are read, all during the Lenten period and Holy Week, the Letter to the Hebrews, about Christ offering himself as a sacrifice on the Cross and offering to God the Father through the Holy Spirit and that through that offering we are all reconciled to God.
And in the hymns of the Church during Holy Week—I’ve been doing this all my life, and I’ve been a priest for 46 years—I can’t find one word in the Holy Week services that speak anywhere about Jesus’ death being a punishment, that God is punishing him in our place, [that] we deserve to be punished, God punishes him instead, and then we get forgiven our sins, we get loosed and our sins become remitted, they no longer apply because the necessary punishment has been paid. I don’t find that anywhere. I don’t find that in the writing of the early Church Fathers, either. It’s just certainly not there in St. Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word of God; it’s not there in the Paschal homilies of the Cappadocian Fathers, like, for example, Gregory the Theologian. It’s just not there.
We do have to ask [ourselves] this question: Is it not possible that some folks are reading the Holy Bible generally, the Isaian prophecies in particular and the writings of St. Paul, we might say in more particular, through a different lens, through a legalistic lens that maybe was a part of a societal life in the Middle Ages in a feudal society, a society built on law and justice and justice being done and a certain way of reading even the law of Moses, which may be a distorted reading. It may very well be a distorted reading, that it is coming from some other location, that we’re not hearing exactly what the Holy Scripture itself is saying and how it is being interpreted.
The plea here is that everyone would read and reread, read and reread the prophecies of Isaiah, read and reread the New Testament, read and reread the writings of St. Paul, particularly the fourth and the fifth chapters of the Letter to the Romans, read and reread it to see what it is really saying and how it is to be understood. And it seems to me that if I would summarize this whole issue, this whole subject—Jesus as the suffering servant and why his suffering fulfills the Isaian prophecy and why it redeems us from sin, and why God redeems us from sin through it, why God reconciles us to himself through this particular act of his servant Jesus of Nazareth who is his own divine Son—if you try to summarize that in the most simple way, I think it could be summarized very simply in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 4-5, and even in one sentence, found in II Corinthians.
Because it seems that in the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul is saying a very simple thing. He is saying that we have to be righteous before God, but there is no one who is righteous, no, not one. He quotes the Scripture on that, Old Testament: there’s no one righteous; no one can claim to be righteous before God. But we need to be righteous before God. Things need to be right before God. We have to be right before God.
And then he’s saying that the Law cannot make a person righteous. The Law only reveals the sinfulness. If we had to stand under the Law, we would all be condemned? Why? Because we are not righteous. And then he says that one man’s act of righteousness leads to the acquittal and life for all of us. That’s a quotation of the Letter to the Romans: “by one man’s act of righteousness.” And he means Jesus. By Jesus’ act of righteousness before God, we are acquitted; we are loosed; we are redeemed; we are reconciled; and we are given “life to all.”
Then he says that this righteousness that Jesus does—and he’s the only one who is righteous; there is no one who is righteous; no, not one—his righteousness is righteousness through obedience, that Jesus is obedient to God, completely and totally. He never breaks a commandment. He does everything that God wants. He does everything that is God’s will. He has no will of his own, so to speak. He has a will, but he says to God his Father, “Your will be done.” He gives his will over to God. He completes the commandments. He loves God with all his mind, soul, heart, and strength; he loves his neighbor as himself.
He loves his enemies. He loves those who persecute him, who beat him, who curse him. And that’s what it means, that he takes that all on himself. He takes on the cursing, the beating, the mocking, the sinning. And when he does that, through that obedience it becomes righteousness; then our trespasses are forgiven, because God, in a sense, can no longer hold the trespasses against us because here is a man who does not trespass. He does not trespass at all. He’s completely and totally obedient. So we are saved by Christ’s obedience to God his Father and by his righteousness. And this is what God wants.
In I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says that we preach Christ crucified, and in his being crucified, that Jesus himself is shown to be the righteousness of God, that he is our righteousness, our sanctification, and he does that through what he suffers, because, in his suffering, he does not sin at all. He’s the object of sin, but he doesn’t sin himself. It says that God is the source of our life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, and so this is who Christ is: he is our righteousness. We will speak about Jesus as the righteous one, what does it mean to be righteous?
But what we want to see now, and, of course, it’s hard to make a right order, because all of this goes together, but right now we’re going to focus on the conviction here: how that Isaian prophecy is understood by the New Testament, by St. Paul, can best probably be summed up in one sentence of II Corinthians 5, where the Apostle writes the following sentence:
For our sake, he (meaning God) made him (meaning Jesus) to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God.
That’s an incredible sentence. God made Jesus to be sin, the man who knew no sin, so that in him we, by faith and by grace, might become the righteousness of God. So God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and he’s reconciling the world to himself and not counting the trespasses and why? Because there is his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the righteous one, the holy one, the innocent one, the just one, who, being totally holy and sinless and just, becomes sin.
And it’s interesting: the Holy Scripture does not say, “became a sin-offering” or “an offering for sin,” which sometimes people add to the text: “a sin-offering.” The word “offering” is not there. It just says he became sin; God made him to become sin. He made him sin, who knew no sin, that through him we might become the righteousness of God. So there’s a sense in which the Apostle is saying, to reveal the righteousness of God, as a man, to show forth the righteousness of God and therefore to be completely righteous, in this world, Jesus shows this by becoming sin, by actually being in the condition of sin, experiencing human sin, and being the object of the sins of the world.
Here we could add, if we read Isaiah through the lens of the New Testament, how the New Testament interprets the text, we could go to the Letter of the Hebrews, where there’s not a mention at all of Jesus being punished, and in the Letter to the Hebrews, when Jesus’s offering, his sacrifice, is compared to lambs and bulls and so on, there’s not a word that those lambs and bulls are being tortured and punished for our sin. Those lambs and bulls and their blood is a sign that we’re offering our life to God. We want God to take our life and our life is not pure and we’re offering something so that God’s sacrificial action in us could avail to our salvation and our healing.
But in the Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul, or the Pauline person who wrote that epistle—maybe Paul, as some people think, but who wrote it—the point there is that the Law and the blood of lambs and goats and bulls and calves can’t save us from anything. It can’t give us a new conscience, it says, before God. It can’t restate us in our ontological being, our very being, before God. It can’t recreate us, so to speak. And if you use the language of righteousness, it cannot make things right. It cannot ultimately, forever, eternally, make things right.
That’s why the priests have to keep offering these bulls and goats and everything, day after day, continuously. But the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus, in his self-offering and his blood, makes things right forever and eternally. But he does that by dying. He became like his brethren in every respect except sin—but became sin. He became sin; God made him sin, even though he wasn’t sinful. God put him in the position of sin, and so all of that that comes from sin—on the one hand the wrath of God, on the other hand death, which is the wages of sin—all this comes on him when he is on the Cross, and that act is an act of perfect righteousness, perfect justice, holiness, goodness.
Therefore, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, that act of Jesus once and for all reconciles us to God. It redeems us. It frees us from our sin. It destroys death. It says, “through his suffering, he became perfect through what he suffered.” It’s an incredible sentence in the Letter [to] the Hebrews. He became perfect through what he suffered, so his suffering, his being made sin is a perfecting act. In St. John’s Gospel, when he dies on the Cross, he said, “It is perfected; it is now fulfilled.”
Here you have God, in Christ, doing everything that God can do, and Christ, as a man, being everything that God wants from men, and what God wants from men is not our taint, our punishment. Christ being tortured is not what redeems us; it’s not what removes the wrath of God from us. It’s the righteousness of Jesus that does it. When you have this perfect righteousness then everything is made right. And by faith and grace in Jesus, we can participate in the righteousness of God.
And then we not only have this righteousness reckoned to us, but what happens is that we actually can become righteous. Through the power of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit given through the victory of Christ, we can become righteous, and Jesus even preaches that. When he’s on the earth, he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter the kingdom of God.” When he speaks in the judgment parable—and we’ll speak about Jesus as the Judge—he says, “The righteous, those who are righteous are those who enter into the kingdom.”
No one is righteous by himself, but people can be made righteous by faith and grace through Jesus. Not simply considered to be righteous or reckoned as righteous in the sense of “We’re not really righteous, but God kinda reckons as righteous.” That’s not what the Scripture means. It means that, when we believe in him and have his grace in us, then we really can become righteous; we can become righteous people, upright—but it’s by him. It’s by grace; it’s not by the Law. If it was by the Law alone, we couldn’t do it.
That’s why, when Peter says to Jesus, “Lord who can do what you teach?” he doesn’t just say, “Follow the commandments and try hard.” He says, “Nobody can do it.” He says, “Well, it’s impossible to save yourself. It’s impossible by yourself to be saved, because it’s impossible by yourself to be righteous. But, being the righteous one, I can fulfill all righteousness!” That’s also an expression of Luke’s Gospel: He came in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus himself goes through it all, and he does it all for us and for our salvation.
In that sense, there is a kind of a substitution. He does stand in our place, but he doesn’t stand in our place as a person getting punished. He stands in our place as a person who is righteous and who is obedient, and not like Adam, not like the one man through whom sin and death came into the world, but by being an obedient, righteous man. And the paradox is: he became obedient and righteous to God by becoming sin for us, by becoming a curse for us, as St. Paul says: “Curséd is everyone who hangs on the cross.” In that very act, everything is made right. As it says in the Corinthian letter: “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This seems to be the proper interpretation of the Isaiah servant language, the servant songs in Isaiah.
Now let’s go through, line by line, this last servant song [which] begins on Isaiah 52:13 and it goes through all of Isaiah 53. Sadly, I have before me today only the RSV and the King James version. I do not have the Septuagint in front of me, but it would be interesting to read this also in the Greek translation from the Hebrew done by the Jews themselves in an English translation of the Septuagint. You can find that in the Orthodox Study Bible. That’s a Septuagint translation, but I do not have that in front of me now. I hope it isn’t that severely important, but I do remember a few things about the Septuagint which I will comment [on] as we go through these particular verses.
Here’s how it begins. It begins—this is Isaiah 52:13. “Behold my servant…” This is the RSV.
Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and he shall be very high.
In the King James, it says this:
Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
So what it says right in the beginning is that this ebed Yahweh, this servant of Yahweh, the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, his servant, his chosen, his beloved, will be exalted, will prosper, will act prudently, will do the right thing. And because of that, he shall be exalted and lifted up. And in St. John’s Gospel, they use that term of “exalted, lifted up” in a kind of nuanced form. If you read St. John’s Gospel, you can’t tell sometimes when Jesus is spoken about, Jesus is being “lifted up” or “When I am lifted up, when I am exalted,” whether it means lifted up on the Cross or lifted up into the heavens.
In a sense, in the New Testament, those are both the same thing. When Jesus is exalted upon the Cross, lifted up, and it says in St. John’s Gospel, that is when he is glorified, when he is lifted up. He enters into his glory, of God the Father at his right hand, through [suffering], by being lifted up upon the Cross. That’s a very important way of speaking, especially in St. John. But St. Paul does it, too. He says, “Who is lifted up and exalted except he who first condescended to us.” It’s the Letter to the Ephesians.
The servant of Yahweh, from what we hear in this first verse, is going to be lifted up, and he shall be very high. He shall be very high; he shall be over all things. In the New Testament also, he is called the most high: the most high, very high, exalted. One of the names of God, before he was called “Yahweh” in the Old Testament was “El Shaddai,” which means “the Most High.” So the servant will be most high, exalted, very high.
Then it continues in the RSV (Isaiah 52:14):
As many were astonished at him…
“Many were astonished at him”—the note, in the Oxford note it says it’s not very clear, but it does say in Hebrew “you”: “As many were astonished at you,” meaning the servant, and actually, that’s what the King James says. It says,
And as many were astonished at thee…
And then in the RSV it says:
...his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men…
In the King James it says the following:
His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men…
So it says that this servant who is exalted, who’s going to prosper, who’s lifted up, who shall be very high, however, they’re all astonished at him, because that one who is lifted up is the one who was marred beyond human semblance. [His] appearance was marred, it was distorted, and his form was beyond any marring that was found among the sons of men; it was more than any other man. It says that “this startles all the nations.”
In the RSV it says (Isaiah 52:15):
...so shall he startle many nations…
And that verb, “startle,” has a note in the RSV. It says, “The Hebrew word is uncertain.” He doesn’t know what it means. Strangely, in the King James version, they translate it:
...so shall he sprinkle many nations…
Now, I don’t know what’s going on there linguistically, but if you hear, if you’re a Bible reader and you hear the term “sprinkle,” you can’t help but think of the sprinkling of blood, that the sprinkling of his blood… You know, you sprinkle the altar. That’s a very loaded term in sacrificial language: the sprinkling. So it says, “he will sprinkle many nations,” and it could even be translated, “the multitude of nations,” that “many” means “all.”
Very often, by the way, in [the] Semitic language, when it says, “the multitude” or “the many,” it simply means “everyone.” That’s just simply a way of speaking, like at the Last Supper, the Lord says his blood will be shed, “For you and for many.” It means the multitude; it actually means “all.” So all the nations will be sprinkled; he will sprinkle them. In the [RSV} it says he will startle them, they’ll be shocked, to think that this is what’s going on.
And then it says, in the RSV:
...kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall understand.
In the King James it says:
...kings shall shut their mouths at him. For that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
That’s definitely a New Testamental teaching about Jesus, that all the kings of their earth just shut their mouths at him, because they’re seeing something they never saw before, and they [heard] something they’ve never understood before, and they have to consider it, and it’s just a startling reality. If we took these two translations and mixed them together, we could say that all the kings of the earth and all the peoples are startled and all the nations are startled because of the sprinkling of the blood of this servant who is the one who is exalted and lifted up and is very high.
Of course, we’ve said before that the most amazing thing in the New Testament is that the Lord and the Christ who is the Savior of the world is the servant who suffers. He’s exalted because of his suffering, that’s a clear, consistent New Testamental teaching: He enters his glory through crucifixion, through rejection.
Of course, it also says in the New Testament, Jesus says in the Gospels to his disciples, “Many kings wanted to see what you saw, many people, the prophets, but they did not see what you see. They did not hear what you hear.” So you are hearing and seeing the great mystery of God now being revealed in front of your own eyes. People desired to see it; they did not see it. They desired to hear it; they did not hear it. And that’s also said in the Letter to the Hebrews, where it says very clearly that all the holy, righteous ones of the Old Testament were not perfected without the Christians, without us.
The ultimate perfection comes from Jesus, and they themselves are startled, and they didn’t expect to see what they see and to hear what they hear. That’s certainly a Christian teaching, that the Gospel of God and Jesus just shocks everybody. It startles everybody. It’s what no one expected. It’s what no one thought would ever happen. It was not the going idea about how God would act through his Messiah, that he would be a suffering servant who would be marred beyond human form, beyond the sons of men, who would be [someone who] no one would even want to look at, and it would just be totally shocking.
Then it continues, and now we’re at the first verse of [chapter] 53, which just continues this narrative. It says (Isaiah 53:1):
Who has believed what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
In the King James it says:
Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
Those very words are quoted in the Gospel according to St. John, John 12, when Jesus is speaking about being lifted up from the earth and all looking upon [him] whom they have pierced and so on. It says in St. John’s Gospel, “This is to fulfill the saying of Isaiah,” which we now have just heard, “Who has believed our report?” Who has believed this? “To whom has the arm of the Lord revealed?”
And then in St. John it even continues: “That God himself somehow is blinding the eyes and shutting the ears, that people would not understand it.” Now, of course, that’s a tough sentence, and it’s a Semiticism again, which means there are those who don’t want to see it, who don’t want to hear it, so God then blinds them and [deafens] them, lest they should be saved, lest they should turn and be saved. And [those] very words are used by the Apostle Paul at the very end of the Book of Acts. St. Paul refers to these same words of Isaiah, God blinding the eyes and deafening the ears, hardening the hearts in that sense so that they cannot turn and believe.
But God only blinds those who will to be blind. He only makes deaf those who do not want to hear. He only hardens the hearts of people who want their hearts to be hardened, who do not open their hearts to him. Then the presence of God is a hardening, and then the very presence of God is experienced as a wrath and not as a mercy. In fact, that would be a biblical teaching; certainly our ascetical and spiritual Fathers would say the wrath of God is a sign of his love for us, upon us, but when we resist that love, it’s experienced as wrath; it’s experienced as destruction.
Then it continues. In the RSV, I continue reading (Isaiah 53:2):
For he grew up before him like a young plant, like a root out of dry ground…
So it says that Jesus, the servant—and we Christians would say that’s Jesus—grew up before him—that’s God—like a young plant, like a root out of dry ground. Some of the Church Fathers liked to play with this and say that the root out of the dry ground, it means that he’s born of the Virgin. He comes from the virgin earth, the dry ground, the one that has no human seed in it, but that he is the root, and we mentioned already and we’ll mention again that that term, “root” or “branch,” it’s “netser.” That’s why he’s called a Nazarene; that’s why he lives in Nazareth, because he is this root; he is the rod or the root of Jesse, the one on whom the Holy Spirit if poured forth.
It says he grew up like a young plant, like a root out of dry ground. This makes us think also of St. Luke’s Gospel, where it said that he grew up in wisdom and stature before God and man and the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. So he grows up as a young child who was born out of dry ground, as it says here.
Then it continues. Well, let me read how the King James translates that. In the King James it says,
He shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground.
Then the RSV continues:
...he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and he had no beauty that we should desire him.
So it’s not some kind of human nobility or grandeur or beauty that anybody wants to look at him. His semblance is marred. His appearance is marred. He’s beyond human semblance, so he has no beautiful human form or comeliness that we should want to look upon him. There’s no reason for us to look at him, so to speak, and no beauty that we should desire him. In the King James version, it says this:
He hath no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
So humanly speaking, he’s just repulsive. There’s nothing that draws, there’s nothing that [attracts]. There’s nothing that feeds human desire for beauty. And then it continues:
He was despised and rejected by men (This is the RSV.); 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.
In the RSV annotated version, it says, where it says “he was despised and rejected,” they say “rejected” could also be translated “forsaken,” and then that would make us think of the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That he is being forsaken by God. Then where it says “a man of sorrows,” the [note] says that you can translate that “a man of pains.” And then when it says “acquainted with grief,” it can be translated, rather, “with sickness, acquainted with sickness.” So “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, despised and rejected” could be read: “he was despised and forsaken by men, a man of pains, and acquainted with sickness; as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
In the King James version, this is how it is translated:
He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. And we hid as it were our faces from him…
We didn’t want to look at him.
...he was despised and we esteemed him not.
So it says he has no human esteem. Nobody esteems him; no one sees anything great in him. They just see him as one despised, rejected, forsaken, filled with grief, filled with sorrow, filled with pain, as a person that no one wants to look at, and no one will esteem, and everyone will despise.
Then the text continues (Isaiah 53:4):
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (This is the RSV.); yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
In the RSV, there’s notes. It said it can be translated also: “Surely he has borne our sicknesses and carried our pains; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” In the King James, this says:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
So what do we have here? He’s carrying our sorrows, our sicknesses, our pains. He’s smitten by God; he’s afflicted. And we esteem him as such. That’s how we see him. Again, it’s not very surprising that these lines would [refer] to our Lord Jesus Christ, because certainly he has borne our griefs, our pains, carried our sorrows, our sicknesses, and we see him stricken, smitten by God, forsaken by God, even, according to the psalm that he screams from the Cross, and definitely afflicted, afflicted even unto death.
This is the servant of Yahweh, the servant of the Lord, [who] is going through all of these things. We observe them; we see him, and the description here is so vivid that you would think that Isaiah is looking right at the Cross of Christ and simply describing it. The Passion of Christ: that’s how vivid it is. That also makes us think of, in St. John’s Gospel, how Jesus says, “Isaiah saw my day, and he rejoiced.”
Well, he ultimately rejoices because Jesus is raised and glorified, and he’s glorifying himself and God is reconciling the world through his bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, being afflicted with the afflictions, not only that we ourselves bear, but as we’re going to see, that all these pains and sorrows and griefs and afflictions are put upon him—by us. We are the ones who are doing these things to him!
We continue reading (Isaiah 53:5):
But he was wounded (the RSV says) for our transgressions, and he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
That’s the RSV. [The King James version] puts it this way:
But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace…
That’s a strange expression, but that’s how it’s translated in [the] King James version
The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.
Here the preposition “for” is crucial, because when it is read, “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,” that healed us, “with his stripes,” and his “stripes” mean the wounds, the lashing. Sometimes the stripes is actually a word, technically, for when a person is whipped, so “by his being whipped, we have been healed.”
It seems that in Greek the translation from the Hebrew in the Septuagint, the preposition there is “dia.” Certainly “dia” is the word that’s used by St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans: “For” or “by.” And it is very possible, and it seems that the Septuagint as I recall actually does this, that it would be read in the following way: “Who was wounded due to our transgressions, or because of our transgressions. And he was bruised due to or because of our iniquities; and upon him the chastisement that made us whole, and by his lashings, by his stripes, we are healed.”
First of all, it’s important that this chastisement does not necessarily mean punishment. Chastening is a way of purging, of cleansing, of healing. In fact, it’s a way of being made healed. We are healed by chastening. It says in Scripture, “God chastens those whom he loves.” He chastens Israel so that ultimately they might be healed, that they might be reconciled, they might be redeemed, they might be returned, they might be reinstated. This chastening activity of God, and it says in Hebrews, quoting the Old Testament, quoting the Psalter, that the Lord chastens those whom he loves, and he’s loving us. It’s the only way he can save us: it’s by chastening us.
In any case, there is no teaching here of retributive justice, retribution having to be made. The word “punishment” is not used, and it’s certainly not in the spirit of the entire text, and certainly not even in this text. So what it seems to mean, I would offer that the proper interpretation is the following: We have our griefs; we have our sorrows; we are afflicted, and all of this is upon us because of our own transgressions. We suffer griefs and pains and sorrows and even death itself because we sin. The wages of sin is death. It’s because of our iniquities that all this comes upon us.
The ironic, paradoxical teaching of Holy Scripture is that Jesus takes all this on himself. It says he takes upon himself the sin of the world. That Jesus even becomes all of this himself. St. Paul said, “He became sin who knew no sin, that through him we might become the righteousness of God.” So Jesus becomes sin, he takes on himself the sin, he becomes sin, and therefore he’s bearing the griefs, carrying the sorrows, being smitten and being afflicted by God, and he’s being wounded. And all of this is because of our transgressions. It’s due to the fact that we sin.
Then you could add a further point. We are the ones who do it, not only to ourselves and to each other, but we do it to him. That’s the point, that we not only torture ourselves, beat up ourselves, bring grief and sorrow on ourselves because of our iniquities, but because of our iniquities, we bring sorrow and grief and pain and affliction to all the other people around us. And the human race is nothing but sorrow, affliction, grief, pain, and ultimately corpses and dead people. That’s what humanity is. You look at it objectively, scientifically, and that’s what we are. As the old saying goes, “Man is a wolf to man. [Homo homini] lupus est. Man is a wolf to man.” We’re [destructive]; we consume one another; we all die together in pits like beasts.
If we look objectively at humanity, that’s what it is. No matter how many great reform programs we will have and American dreams and prosperity and peace and gross national product and banks that are solvent and we all have vacations and holidays and we can be what we want to be and do whatever we want to do, that’s just simply lies. It’s baloney. It is just not true. That just does not happen. Thanks be to God that there can be societies in which God’s righteousness somehow dwells. There can be the rule of the righteous, as it says in Scripture: when the righteous are in power, the poor and the needy are happy; they delight.
So there can be societies that somehow do try to follow the righteousness of God and to bring a certain peace and contentment and happiness to people. Hopefully, America kind of boasts that it tries to be that kind of a society. Perhaps is a better one than any of the others that we have seen so far in human history. But in any case, we’re still doomed to death. In any case, even in the best societies, there is extortion; there is greed. Why are we suffering our economic disaster now? It’s because of greed. There is lying; there is stealing; there is perversion; there is the oppression of the poor. There’s inequality; there’s injustice; there’s all these kind of things. They’re all there, and we suffer because of them. All of our griefs and anxieties come because of them.
And then the Prophet Isaiah says, fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, that God’s servant, who will be exalted and [lifted] up and [prosper], he bears all these things for us, because of us. He enters into all of our world, for us and for our salvation. And it is not that God is beating him up or torturing him or punishing him; it’s that he enters into the beating and the torturing and the punishment that we inflict upon each other.
In the Letter to the Hebrews it will even say, the Apostle will even say that if we sin, who have been washed and cleansed by Christ, who have tasted of the Bread of Life, in other words, if we sin after baptism, after chrismation, after receiving Holy Communion—there no longer remains a sacrifice for us. There no longer remains any means of redemption or reconciliation, because we have rejected the very means of redemption and reconciliation that God has given us in Jesus when he died on the Cross and [was] raised from the dead.
That’s why, in the sixth chapter and tenth chapter—Read it!—of the Letter to the Hebrews, it says we crucify again the Lord of glory if we sin after baptism. Any time we sin in any smallest way, we are putting a nail into Jesus. We are the cause of all this suffering of the suffering servant of the Lord, described by Isaiah in this chapter of the prophecy, in this prophecy. We are the cause of it. It is because of all of us. And it is also for us. It’s because of us, and it’s for us.
If we use the language of the Divine Liturgy, it’s “kata panta kai dia panta”; it’s “on behalf of all and for all.” It’s because of everyone and for everyone, and because of everyone and because of everything. This is what it seems to be saying here when it says that he bore our griefs, carried our sorrows; we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, afflicted, wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole; and by his beatings, his stripes, we are healed.
We Christians believe it’s the only way we could be made whole, and it’s the only way we can be healed. And, by the way, that expression, “made whole,” in Greek it’s “saved”; being made whole means being saved. In other words, you can translate it “by his being in this condtion, we are saved.” And there’s no other way for us to be saved than by God’s servant to go through what we are, what is the condition of our very life. In fact, St. Leo the Great, the pope of Rome, in his famous Tome, 28th [letter] to the Council of Chalcedon, Leo the Great says that Jesus paid the debt to our condition; he paid the price to our condition, and that’s why his sacrifice is satisfactory. It satisfies the conditions of things. It makes things right, and it is the only way that he can make things right.
Then the text continues. It says (Isaiah 53:6):
And 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.
That text is familiar to Christians, certainly; again, it’s Handel’s Messiah, I believe: “We like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way, but the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.”
In the King James version, it would be translated this way:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
It’s almost the same in both usual English translations. What we have to see here is that we are all straying. We’ve all gone astray; there’s none of us who are [righteous]. We are in this situation that we just described: afflicted, grieving, sorrowful, doomed to death, and so on. All of us are this way, and we do it because we’ve turned to our own way, and our own way is not the way of God. We followed our own mind, we followed our own heart, and all of this has… This iniquity is because of us.
Then the next sentence says
...and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
In other words, he has put him in the situation in which we are now finding [ourselves], and it is because of our iniquity. The Lord puts on him who has no sin the sin of us all. He lays it on him. He sent him in the world so that he could take it up, so that he could become it, that he could experience it, he could go through it, and therefore reconcile it to God by this way. In fact, we could even say, as one English divine said in the 19th century, in a book I read once, F.D. Morris, in a book called The Doctrine of Sacrifice, he said, “What the Bible teaches and the New Testament teaches clearly is that there is no righteousness without sacrifice.” There is no righteousness without identifying with the sinful other. Any human being who is righteous is righteous because he loves the other and gives his life to the other. And God himself is righteous because he sacrifices himself for us.
The great proof of the righteousness and the goodness and the love of God is that he comes and sacrifices himself, his own Son, which in some sense is even more terrible than himself; God the Father’s sacrifice of his son is somehow even more poignant, more startling.
I remember once there was a guy on TV named Phil Donahue and he lost his faith and started making fun of it. He was a Catholic, but he lost it, and he wrote this horrible book, Donahue, and I’ll never forget I read it on the day of my father’s funeral. That evening I was going to bed, and I read it; I remember it like yesterday, although it was 25 years ago. Phil Donahue said, “Christianity is stupid. If God is such a great, loving God, why didn’t he come and suffer himself? Why does he send his Son?”
Well, one thing is for sure. St. Athanasius said he sends his Son because the world belongs to his Son. All things are made through him and for him. Therefore the one who is the creator of all has to be the redeemer of all; and if God creates through his Son, he has to redeem through his Son. But he also said, and this is certainly a Christian conviction, in some sense it is more—how can you say?—startling, more shocking that God would sacrifice his Son, unlike Abraham, that he asked to sacrifice his son, God sacrifices his Son.
And in a sense, any father would rather die himself than to sacrifice his son. Any real, loving person, would rather die themselves than to see someone they love dying and suffering. So it’s even more to the startling, shocking character of Christianity that it is the Son of God who is the redeemer, the Son of God who is the servant of Yahweh, who bears the iniquities of us all.
And then it continues in the RSV (Isaiah 53:7):
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 dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
In the King James version, it says this:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter; and as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
And of course, the New Testament very clearly sees this in Jesus, when, before Pilate and before the high priests, Jesus remains silent. He doesn’t speak. He said everything he had to say; there’s nothing more that could be said. His silence is more eloquent than his words at that point. What more can he say? And he says that, even, to Pilate and to the high priests. He says, “I spoke openly. I said everything I had to say. You could hear it if you want to or reject it if you want to, but what [is there] more to say?” And so he remained silent.
When Pilate says, “What is truth?” It says Jesus remained silent. So he opens not his mouth, and so this prophecy is fulfilled at his Passion, that like a sheep, just offered, without resistance, without struggle, so to speak. In a kind of simplicity and innocence, he gives himself in total silence. He opens not his mouth.
Then it continues in the RSV (Isaiah 53:8):
By 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.
Or “because of the transgression of my people” or “on account of” or “due to the transgression of my people.” In the King James it says: “He was taken from prison...” That’s really interesting: “He was taken from prison,” because Jesus was in prison. He was arrested and put in prison, and he was brought out of prison. So I don’t know what it says in Hebrew, but the King James says:
He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgressions of my people was he stricken.
Because of those transgressions, again; due to them.
He was in prison. He was put on a judgment seat. And when it says, “Who shall declare his generation?” Very often that makes one think of Melchizedek and in the New Testament, when it says, “When the Christ comes, no one will know where he comes from.” Probably this prophecy was in the people’s mind when they said, “We know where you come from,” but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he comes from. But in fact, “his generation, who shall declare it?” Who knows where he comes from? Well, he comes from God. You could say Bethlehem; you could say Nazareth; you could say whatever, but his generation is generated by God. It is God who begot him: born of Mary, begotten of God.
Then, of course, it said that he was denied justice; it’s what the Greek text says, I remember. He was not given justice. It was all done unjustly. It was all done wrongly. There was no justice in his death, because the man was innocent. So it says, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away,” but in the Septuagint it says, “By the oppression, this oppression, he was denied justice.” He wasn’t given justice; no justice was given to him.
Then it continues:
By 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.
This means that he died, and here, in the King James, it says exactly the same:
He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
That means he’s died: the land of the living, that was a biblical expression. In fact, it’s interesting that in Christian tradition, Orthodox tradition, Jesus Christ himself is called the land of the living, hē chōra tōn zōntōn. There’s even a cemetery outside the walls of Constantinople in the old days, Kachrie Djami, a funeral chapel, where the relics are preserved, and many of us can see them, with Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of the tomb and so on. But that church is called hē Chōra tōn zōntōn, the land of the living, and that’s Jesus himself. But he’s “cut off out of the land of the living, stricken—again, the same word—for the transgressions of my people.”
And then it says (Isaiah 53:9):
And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
That’s RSV. King James says:
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, because he had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in his mouth.
Now this, in the New Testament, is understood that when it says “he made his grave with the wicked,” that is usually interpreted as meaning he gets killed with those two thieves. And he’s numbered, generally, among the wicked. He’s considered to be a wicked person. He’s executed by the Romans as an evildoer, as a wicked person. The leaders of the people said that he was a blasphemer of God, an offender against the Law, destroyer of the Temple, and a deceiver of the people. They said he was totally wicked. They even said that he was a Samaritan and had a devil, that he did things by Beelzebul. So he’s numbered among the wicked, and he’s really with the wicked when he gets killed.
“With the rich man in his death,” they usually think that means Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, because Joseph was very rich. He had this nice tomb nearby, he got all this [ointment], and he buried Jesus, in his own tomb. So he’s “with a rich man in his death.” “Although he had done no violence; there was no deceit in his mouth.” In other words, he was perfectly innocent. He harmed nobody, and deceived nobody. He did no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Then it continues (Isaiah 53:10):
Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him and to put him to grief…
And the note here in RSV says, “made him sick”: “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him and to make him sick,” because he’s got to heal our sicknesses.
...for he makes himself an offering for sin…
In the Hebrew it says literally, “Thou makest his soul”—his life, his nefesh—“an offering for sin.” In other words, he gives his life as a sin-offering. And here, in the King James, it says:
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief. when he shall make his soul (his psychē, his life in Hebrew) an offering for sin…
So he gives his own life as a sin-offering, and that’s certainly what Jesus does, according to the New Testament. He makes himself, voluntarily. They think they’re doing it to him, but he’s doing it himself. God is doing it. God is the actor, here. Jesus is doing everything voluntarily; he is not compelled. He could call legions of angels and wipe them out, but he doesn’t do it. No, he doesn’t do it, because otherwise he could not save the world. He could not heal; he could not redeem; he could not make whole; he could not save. He can only do it by making himself an offering, giving himself, becoming sin.
Then it says (Isaiah 53:10-11):
...he shall see his offspring, he shall proclaim his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul (or his life) and he shall be satisfied; ...
In other words, he’s going to see the fruit of all this. He’s going to see the many children who are saved. He’s going to see the length of days. He’s going to see the fruit of all of his suffering. He’s going to see it himself, and he’s going to be satisfied.
And then it says:
...by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, for he shall bear their iniquities.
So it says the Lord will prosper him, and the Lord will see the fruit of all of this. God will see it. Christ will see it. The whole world will see it. The kings will shut their [mouths], because they’re all going to see it: that this suffering servant of the Lord is exalted on high, and he saves the multitude, and the nations come to him. This is what it all says. Again, you have that expression, “make many to be accounted righteous,” and here it could be “the multitude.” St. Paul is going to pick this up about “the multitude” or “all” being justified or made righteous. And that term, “justified,” it simply means being made righteous, in St. Paul.
Here we have it in the King James version:
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief. When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied. And by his knowledge shall my righteous servant…
He’s “my righteous servant.” Jesus is called the “righteous one” in the New Testament, “[who] shall make many to be righteous.”
In King James it says:
...my righteous servant shall justify many, and he shall bear their iniquities.
And then it continues (Isaiah 53:12):
Therefore (it’s the conclusion) I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul (or his life) to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
[In] King James, it ends this way:
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great; he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he has poured out his soul unto death. And he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of the multitude (many), and made intercession for transgressors.
So he carries the transgression and intercedes for the transgressors. He pours out his life to death. He’s numbered with the transgressors: that means the thieves on the cross and that means all of us, because we’re all transgressors, so he’s numbered with us. He became one of us. He bore the sins of the multitude: all of us, and he lives to make intercession for the transgressors. And here, of course, St. Paul says there is one mediator between God and man: the God-man, Jesus. He is the one who mediates salvation.
In fact, in the Letter to the Hebrews, he is called not only Mediator, but Intercessor, that he enters into the Holy of Holies in the heavens before the throne of God, and he makes intercession on our behalf. Another way of putting that is that he is the Paraklētos, he is the Advocate. And in St. John’s Gospel, it says, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate before the Father: Jesus Christ, the righteous.” So the righteous servant is the advocate, the paraklētos, the mediator, the intercessor—for all of us.
He also says, St. John says, if we say we have [no] sin, we’re just a liar and we make God a liar; we’re all sinners. There’s no one [who is] righteous. Only Yahweh’s servant, Jesus Christ is the righteous one. And therefore he is our Advocate. He lives to make intercession. He intercedes for us, on our behalf. And it is by his righteousness that we are redeemed. It is by his righteousness that we are bought back. It is by his righteousness that we are saved. It is by his righteousness that we are made whole. It is by his righteousness that we are liberated. It is by his righteousness that we are sanctified and glorified and made alive forever.
So the debt that we owe God is our righteousness. We must be righteous, but we are not. But the servant of Yahweh is righteous. And that’s why his suffering and his death saves us. This appears to be clearly the meaning of this chapter in the Prophecy of Isaiah, as it is interpreted in the New Testament writings, particularly the writings of St. Paul and St. John.
Jesus, the servant of God. Jesus, stricken for us. Jesus, bearing our sin. Jesus, having the iniquity of us all put upon him. Jesus, suffering because we torture him ourselves. Every time we sin, we put a nail in his hands and a spear in his side. Every time we sin, we put him on the Cross. Yes, every one of us. You can’t blame the Jews. They’re part of the human race. But salvation comes from them, because the savior of the world is the servant, nefesh, the boy, the child, of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is God’s Son, the suffering servant, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, our savior and our redeemer.