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Jesus Christ: The Suffering Servant
During Holy Week the Orthodox Church reads many prophecies from the Old Testament. In particular on Good Friday a text is read from Isaiah (Is 52:13-53:12) which relates to God's servant who will undergo nothing but suffering. And yet it will be through this suffering that this righteous and Suffering Servant of God will accomplish God's saving mission. The Eastern Orthodox tradition claims that this prophecy was fulfilled by the person of Jesus Christ who suffered unto death as the "Suffering Servant" of God in order to bestow life to the entire world.
For this reason, as Holy Week and Easter is fast approaching it would be good to reflect on Jesus as the Suffering Servant.
In many verses of the New Testament Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is depicted as the 'Suffering Servant' of God. In fact it is especially those passages which record the impending Passion of Christ that have Jesus' person and mission referred to in terms of God's 'Suffering Servant'. Used by Jesus Himself in order to describe His saving and messianic mission, this title finds its source in the 'Suffering Servant' prophecies as they are expressed in the book of Isaiah. Indeed on several occasions, one finds Isaiah's 'servant' passages directly quoted by New Testament writers in order to describe central ideas about Jesus' person and mission. Therefore in order to understand what was meant by Jesus as the 'Suffering Servant' it is necessary to examine the prophecies of Isaiah to see in what ways Jesus fulfilled what was alluded to by the prophet over 700 years before Christ's birth. That is, it is only Jesus Christ who sheds light fully on the meaning of these prophetic writings, thereby highlighting their abundantly rich and theologically suggestive character. And yet it is the prophecies read in the light of Jesus Christ which can illumine the meaning of Jesus as the 'Suffering Servant' of God and it is to these that we now turn.
The Prophet Isaiah
Writing over seven hundred years before the coming of Christ, the prophet Isaiah was able to predict the coming of the Messiah because it was God who had revealed to him His future coming. One cannot but be astounded at the remarkable way that Isaiah was elected by God to this prophetic mission: God is revealed to him; Isaiah is utterly perplexed at the tremendous vision; he confesses his unworthiness and an angel is described as touching his lips with a burning coal in order to cleanse them.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” … And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean … Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (Is 6:1-7).
Following God's call it would be quite safe to say that Israel produced few other figures as great in stature as the prophet Isaiah. We know that after being called to his prophetic office, Isaiah engaged in the events of his time many ways guiding the nation of Israel through times of tragedy and crisis.
Isaiah's Suffering Servant Poems
Biblical scholars have usually identified four particular passages from the book of Isaiah which tell of the Lord as the Suffering Servant – these are, what is traditionally called the poems of Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12. Filled with powerful images and striking descriptions these passages boldly and imaginatively tell the story of God's Suffering Servant. The first of these, Isaiah 42:1-4 portrays God's beloved chosen servant as the decisive figure who acted on God's behalf to bring justice to the world. In the Old Testament justice was understood in terms of social equity where the weak, the vulnerable, the orphans and widows could enjoy a life of dignity, security and well-being. Being entirely obedient to God's purposes and commands, this servant of God, Isaiah describes, as anointed with God's spirit, one in whom God would totally delight:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him (Is 42:1).
One can easily see why the early Christian tradition identified this servant of God with the anticipated Messiah, Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of God's justice and salvation.
The second articulation of servanthood, found in Isaiah 49:1-6 exemplifies even more clearly the reason why the Eastern Orthodox tradition has identified Isaiah's Suffering Servant with Jesus Christ. Whereas the first passage had God referring to his chosen servant, this passage has the Suffering Servant himself addressing the people of God:
The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me… And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified…. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is 49:1-6).
In announcing that he, as God's 'Suffering Servant' was chosen even before he was born betrays that God would be with him as he brought God's plan to its ultimate end for the salvation of the people and the glorification of God. Therefore the self-affirmation of the servant of God coupled with God's declaration reveal that the 'servant' of God was not only identified with God but was God's agent for His purposes of deliverance and in this way is 'a light to the nations'. The passage is even more powerful in that the servant knows that his labour will be in vain and his strength will be spent for nothing and in vanity (cf Is 49:4) and yet the suffering will not discourage the servant's resolve to do the work of God. Therefore, if identified with Jesus Christ, as the Eastern Orthodox tradition has done so, the anticipated servant would come into the world in order to suffer willingly.
The third passage, Is 50:4-9 makes explicit the role of the Suffering Servant of God as the one who would lead the people of Israel out of exile and back to the Father's home. He could do this because the 'Lord God' had given him "the tongue of a teacher" (Is 50:4), and therefore could claim to be a genuine spokesperson of God, whose words could sustain the weary ones. That he was the faithful servant of God is further outlined in the next verse where Isaiah reveals that the Suffering Servant of God would both listen and obey the Lord God even in the face of scourging and mocking:
The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting (Is 50:5-6).
The extent of the servant's attentiveness to the will of God necessarily means affliction, hostile opposition from the world, and ultimately death to which the Suffering Servant remains uncompromisingly committed and steadfast. Yet the Suffering Servant's willingness to suffer abuse is equalled with God's steadfast action to help and ultimately vindicate him. Again this passage was interpreted by the early Christian Church as a prophecy fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.
The last of the four poems under study from Isaiah, (Is 52:13-53:12) affirms that in suffering, would the servant of God be glorified, exalted and lifted up. The image of the honoured servant is made even more powerful by the extensive description of suffering and humiliation presented in these verses which signify that the glory of God's servant is to be situated in his suffering. It is precisely for this reason that, during His Passion, Christ is depicted as a bridegroom by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Whereas the image of a bridegroom is naturally identified with the glorious crowning of a man's life, in the case of Christ it is associated with his suffering to show precisely that it is through suffering that Jesus Christ is glorified. Read in the light of Jesus Christ Isaiah 53 typologically describes Christ's earthly life from his birth to his death and resurrection. In a stunning affirmation of the entire salvific work of the servant, we read:
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, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed… and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:2-6).
Not only is the suffering of God's servant disclosed at length but also the reasons for this suffering are also presented – that the entire sin of the world was laid upon him for our deliverance. This is further intensified in that verse 4 contrasts how the miraculous events of salvation came from a person whom the people of Israel had disregarded and dismissed. Furthermore the intensity of his suffering is heightened in that verse 5 states that in taking on of the sins of Israel the servant was 'wounded', 'crushed' and 'bruised', yet in this, were the faithful healed. Therefore the suffering of the One made healing possible for the entire world which had gone astray like foolish and recalcitrant sheep.
The indescribable astonishment continues in that not only is the righteous Servant utterly rejected, unjustifiably put to death and buried with the wicked, but in all this, he issues no protest, nor does he present any defence choosing, on his part to remain silent:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Is 53:7).
The image of a lamb is so poignant in that this animal is known not only for its innocence, purity and gentleness, but also for its silent, submissive and accepting stance in the face of any type of opposition. As if this were not enough, the poem continues by stating that "it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain" (Is 53:10). And yet this passage, which at first sight seems so harsh can only be understood in light of what follows. Through the death of the Suffering Servant the will of God would come to prosper in that His servant would be exalted and together with him the entire world. That is, it is this ultimate sacrifice of the Suffering Servant which puts an end, once and for all, to the tyranny of death. One cannot but see the parallels between Isaiah's prophecy and the New Testament description of Jesus, especially Philippians:
[Jesus Christ] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:7-11).
We now turn our attention to see all those events in the Gospels which refer to the sufferings of Jesus of which Isaiah spoke.
Jesus Christ: the fulfilment of the 'Suffering Servant' prophecies
Throughout His life, the New Testament records several episodes which refer to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God. They include 1) His Baptism, 2) the Temptation of Jesus Christ, 3) His rejection at Nazareth, 4) first prediction of His suffering, 5) Jesus' Transfiguration and second prediction about suffering and 6) Jesus' third prediction of suffering on His way to Jerusalem. The six episodes make it abundantly clear that it would be in the person of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant about whom Isaiah had foretold, that these prophecies would be fulfilled. And it is to these six episodes that we now turn briefly.
Already from His baptism in the Jordan River by St John the Forerunner, is the suffering of Jesus Christ disclosed. The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who in His baptism would begin His ministry to take away the sins of the world by suffering and ultimately dying for his people: "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29). Clearly the baptism of Jesus therefore points to His suffering and death on the cross. Immediately following His baptism, Jesus' temptation are attempts, by Satan to take away His sufferings for the salvation of the world. In overcoming the devil, Jesus remained obedient to His Father's will and in this way expressed His unwavering commitment to suffer on behalf of the world. The Gospel of Luke ends this episode with a clear statement that Jesus would have to confront many other temptations: "When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time" (Lk 4:13). Therefore whilst the baptism of the Lord refers to His impending suffering, the temptation for forty days in the wilderness emphasise Jesus' willingness to suffer, so as to break the world's bonds with the evil one.
The Gospels claim that after Jesus was tempted for forty days, He began to preach in Galilee and then in Nazareth, the city in which He was brought up (cf Lk 4:16). As was the custom on the Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue and began to read from the book of Isaiah (ch.61) which spoke of God's Suffering Servant who was authorized to carry out God's salvific mission by preaching the 'good news' and performing many miracles to His people. Upon reading this, Jesus said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:21). After momentarily admiring Jesus, those who had listened to Him, then turned to disbelief asking "is not this Joseph's son" (Lk 4:22) and then became hostile towards Him. For this reason, He left Nazareth and went to other towns performing many miracles and healings. And then as Jesus came to the town of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples: "who do you say that I am?" (Lk 9:20). After Peter's confession of faith that Jesus was the Messiah, God's Son, Jesus, for the first time made His first prediction about His imminent suffering: "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Lk 9:22). So important is the suffering of Jesus, since, in this will the world be set free, that when Peter attempted to question Him on this, Jesus replied "Get behind me Satan" (Mt 16:23). Clearly Jesus understood His person and mission in terms of the Suffering Servant of God described in Isaiah and so after this He began to teach His disciples about His future suffering in the hands of the Jewish elders, the chief priests and the scribes (or Pharisees).
Only after having spoken about His suffering did Jesus transfigure in the presence of three disciples, Peter, James and John precisely to show that only through suffering would the glory of God be revealed. However, the transfiguration also records Jesus' second prediction of His future suffering and death:
"while he [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodon), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Lk 9:30-31).
The reference to Jesus' exodus pointed to His voluntary death which would bring about the freedom of the people of God from slavery. Immediately after the Transfiguration, Jesus said that: "Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands" (Mt 17:12). And again after healing the boy with the evil spirit "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised" (Mt 17:22-23). This time the theme of suffering and resurrection is brought together in a most explicit way.
Lastly, as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he told His disciples that He would be betrayed, mocked, condemned flogged and turned over to be crucified. (cf Mt 20:17-19). As the former two predictions regarding the suffering of Jesus, this one also contains references to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God who would be condemned not only by the Jewish Sanhedrin but also the Gentiles:
"the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised" (Mt 20:18-19).
Together the three predictions disclosed in great detail the impending suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In all six episodes just delineated, the disciples are presented as not understanding what Jesus meant by all this. Specifically regarding Jesus' three predictions about His impending death, Kesich has wonderfully noted that, in the Gospels the three predictions of Jesus' suffering occur within the context of two miracles where Jesus healed two blind men, one at Bethsaida and the other as He was leaving Jerico. From this, the author beautifully concluded that Jesus was trying to make them 'see' that it would be only in fulfilling His role as the Suffering Servant of God, that He would be exalted and glorified by God. It could safely be said that it was in having seen Jesus described as 'Suffering Servant' that the disciples came to understand Jesus' death not as defeat, but as His ultimate glory and the basis for the world's salvation.
1. The Bible depicts the prophet Isaiah beginning his prophetic mission at approximately 740BC after the death of king Uzziah. It has also been suggested that he died a terrible death being sawn in two by Manassseh (cf Heb 11:37). After 701BC Isaiah disappears from the scene without a trace.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College