Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Cross of Christ

This is the first time I’m preaching for two consecutive Sundays. And maybe the last time. I was so stressed up. I salute Ps. Meng for preaching for 9 consecutive Sundays. Don’t know how he did it. By the grace of God I’m sure. I was supposed to preach two weeks from Isaiah 53 but I found that after a week I have exhausted all that I want to say. Maybe for an experienced preacher, he can preach 5 sermons from that passage. Last week we saw how that passage can be nicely divided into 5 equal portions with each part taking 3 verses. Unfortunately, in terms of experience this is only my 10th sermon. So I have been struggling as to what to do for this week. It has to be something to do with the Lent season. I decided then to do something different from our usual expository preaching. It’s still going to be expository I guess. But I won’t be expounding on a given biblical text. Instead I will be expounding on a biblical doctrine.
This morning I would like to touch on the work of Christ. More specifically the work of Christ on the cross. In a sense it is related to our text last week. We saw the substitutionary suffering of the Servant in Isaiah 53 last week and we saw how the Suffering Servant is Christ. We saw how Jesus understood himself to be the Suffering Servant and how the NT writers had the same understanding. The ultimate suffering of Jesus and his death happened on the cross.
How are we to understand Jesus’ work on the cross? Why was it so central to Christianity and to our faith? Why was it necessary for Jesus to die? What did the cross achieve? How did the death of Jesus save us and what did it save us from? These are some of the questions that we are going to address this morning.
How many of you have read this book? The Cross of Christ by John Stott. My sermon will be based largely on this book. I’ll be quoting him a number of times. Preachers are allowed to plagiarize as long as they admit to it.
In April 2015, a group about 50 Muslims staged a protest at a church in Kampung Medan not very far from here. They demanded that the cross which was displayed on façade of the shoplot which the church was occupying be taken down. The cross was quite big and I think because of its size, the protesters deemed that it is a challenge to Islam. The community in Kampung Medan, majority of them are Muslims. Actually the demand to remove crosses from buildings is nothing new. Mission schools in the past have also been told to remove them.
The church promptly removed the cross in order to avoid further confrontation and for the safety of their congregation. Perhaps some of us may say, they shouldn’t have put up such a big cross in a Muslim majority area. But following the incident there were many Muslims who came out openly to criticize the actions of those protestors. Basically, they said that those protestors have no right to make such a demand. After all, the cross should not affect their faith at all since they don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross. One of them was Dr Mohd Asri, the former Mufti of Perlis.
He rebuked the Taman Medan protesters for their “unruly behaviour” at the church.
He said, “Islam does not recognise the teachings of other religions, but it recognises the rights of others who want to follow the teachings of other religions and their rights to exist.
He adds, “If your faith is swayed only by looking at a cross, then you are not a good Muslim. You are weak. Your faith is weak.
“And those who say that the cross can influence their faith are an embarrassment to the religion. They bring shame to Islam.”
What I also find interesting was a comment made by one unnamed representative of a nearby church as reported in a news daily.
“It’s not about the symbol that matters, but how one wants to practise or follow their faith... our faith is strong and we are not concerned about our church not bearing a cross on its façade”
The person also added that he would remove the cross from his church if residents demanded this, saying it was only a worldly symbol and its absence would not detract from his faith. He added that his church’s congregation believe in loving their neighbours and being respectful as stated in the Bible.
“So let’s not offend them (the Muslims)... we are a religion of love and peace,” he added.
In one sense, I agree with this unnamed representative. The cross is a symbol, although I would say a religious symbol rather than a worldly symbol. And its absence shouldn’t affect our faith. But one the other hand, the cross is more than a symbol in Christianity.
 A church will still remain a church without the symbol of the cross but a church will cease to be a church if it ceases to preach about the cross. Christianity will cease to be Christianity if its believers do nothing but just love their neighbours and be respectful to them. I always have problem with the saying which is often but wrongly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi i.e. “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.” What basically this saying tries to convey is that we should only focus on doing good. The content of the gospel is not important. The cross can be ignored. Only if necessary do we bring it in. It’s only secondary.
The gospel is good news. Imagine watching the news bulletin but switching off the sound. Can you understand what’s going on? News are meant to be proclaimed. And you cannot proclaim something without words. You just cannot preach the gospel without using words.
 Calvary, and not Bethlehem is the center of Christianity. That’s why sometimes I don’t know what’s the big fuss about Christmas. I think the only thing I would miss if we were to do away with Christmas would be the Christmas carols.
If you take away the message that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, then there is no more Christianity. Of course, this message is symbolized by the cross. Although I don’t think Muslims can so easily have their faith affected by merely looking at the cross, the cross does in a one sense challenges their faith because the cross affirms the death of Jesus which their religion deemed as fake news. So, which is the good news and which is the fake news? Anyway, like it or not, we should be sensitive. It is ok to take away our cross but not the message of the cross.
Actually, the cross as a visual representation of Christianity didn’t exist from the beginning. It is understandable given the stigma that was connected to the cross.  The cross is associated with crucifixion, a death sentence that was reserved only for the most terrible criminals at that material time. Roman citizens were exempted from this form of cruel punishment. In addition, to the Jews anyone who was crucified was considered to be cursed by God (Deut 21:23).
Slowly by the second century onwards, Christians not only drew, painted and engraved the cross as a pictorial symbol of their faith, but also made the sign of the cross on themselves and others. On the eve of a crucial battle, Constantine, the first emperor to profess to be a Christian saw a cross of light in the sky, along with the words (conquer by this sign). He immediately adopted the cross as his emblem or coat of arms. Constantine won the battle and established himself as the emperor of the Roman Empire. Overnight, Christianity went from being a persecuted religion to an official religion of the Empire. The cross, instead being a symbol of ridicule was now viewed as an imperial symbol.
It is surprising that the early Christians before this imperial favour chose the cross as the symbol of their faith. After all, crucifixion was regarded with horror in the ancient world. We certainly can understand why Paul’s message of the cross was considered foolishness to many of his listeners. How can any sane person worship as god a dead man who had been condemned as a criminal and subjected to the most humiliating form of execution? Didn’t make sense then, nor does it make sense now to some people.
Nevertheless, the centrality of Jesus’ death on the cross was not lost on the early followers of Jesus. Despite being an object of ridicule, they clung on to it out of loyalty to their Saviour. For them to do so means that Jesus himself must have also viewed the cross as central to his whole life and ministry. Is there evidence for this?
Firstly, it was Jesus himself who alluded to his death. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus foretold his death on three occasions (Mark, 8,9, 10). What was remarkable on these three occasions was the determination that Jesus showed and exemplified. In Mark 8, right immediately after Peter confessed that Jesus is Christ, Jesus foretold his death to his disciples. But Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Imagine a disciple rebuking his master. What was Jesus’ response? He told Peter straight to his face “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus knew that the work of the devil was to stop him from accomplishing his mission. And Peter’s action towards the same end was nothing but Satanic.
He must suffer and be rejected and die, Jesus said. Everything written of him in Scripture must be fulfilled. So, he set his face towards Jerusalem. Besides these three passages, the gospel records at least eight more occasions on which Jesus alluded to his death. What was going to await him was a violent, premature and yet purposive death. How did Jesus know for sure about his fate?
Firstly, he knew that he would die due to the hostile reaction of the Jewish leaders towards his teachings. He was a threat to their positions. Secondly, he knew he came to fulfill the role of the Messiah in Scripture. It is from Isaiah 53, the passage that we looked at last week that Jesus seems to have derived the clearest forecast not only of his sufferings, but also his subsequent glory. It was from this chapter more than any other that he learnt that the vocation or the career of the Messiah was to suffer and die for human sin, and so be glorified. Lastly it was his deliberate choice in doing his Father’s will for the salvation of sinners. So, he set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem. Nothing would deter him.
 The cross and Christ’s death was also emphasized by the apostles in their epistles. We read about them last week. (Gal. 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24). The author of Hebrews speaks about Jesus making one sacrifice for sins forever and in the Revelation of John, the most common designation given to Jesus is the Lamb of God, the sacrificial lamb. Paul told the Corinthians that he has decided to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified and to the Galatians, he would boast of nothing but in the cross of Christ. There is no doubt that the NT writers believed in the centrality of the cross of Christ. This belief and conviction were derived from their Master, Christ himself.
Since NT times, the cross has either been accepted as the very heart of the Christian message or rejected as weakness and barbaric or something unworthy of a great religion.  According to Samuel Zwemer, who was a pioneer missionary the cross is “where all the wealth and glory of the gospel centers and the pivot as well as the center of NT thought”. Interestingly, Zwemer is known as the Apostle to Islam having labored in Arab countries and Egypt for many years. As we know Islam rejects the death of Christ on the cross and is a stumbling block to Muslims coming to Christ. Yet, Zwemer considers the preaching of the cross to be crucial for evangelism. I think there is something we can learn from Zwemer. We must never compromise our message even though it may be a stumbling block. Even though it may proved to be offensive. The end does not justify the means. A gospel without the cross is a false gospel. The Apostle Paul has no hesitation in cursing those who preach another gospel.
If we accept the death of Jesus on the cross as a historical fact and as being central to our faith, we now need to ask the question as to why did Christ die? Who was responsible for his death?
From the human perspective, Jesus has to die because he was a threat to the Jewish religious and political leadership. He was heard proclaiming himself to be the King of the Jews and this was a challenge to the authority of Caesar. He mixed with sinners, broke the Sabbath law, disregarded traditions and condemned the religious leaders of the day likening them to white-washed tombs. He was perceived to be leading the people astray by his teachings. As such, there were good political, theological and ethical reasons for silencing him permanently.
The Jewish leadership who perpetrated the conspiracy found a willing co-conspirator in Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus. Then, there was Pilate who cowardly passed the sentence despite being convinced of Jesus’ innocence. The soldiers who whipped him, who mocked him. The crowd who shouted, “Crucify him!” Crucify him!”.  All these people were directly or indirectly responsible for Jesus’ death, but Stott points out that, “before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance). In other words, we are as guilty as those people listed above. We are as guilty as the Jewish leadership. We are as guilty as Judas Iscariot. We are as guilty as Pilate and his Roman soldiers. Have you heard of this old negro spiritual that goes like this “were you there when they crucified the Lord?” Yes, we were all there. Canon Peter Green says “only the man who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the cross may claim his share in its grace.” We all stand condemned and guilty.
Yes, there were good reasons to have Jesus killed. But why didn’t God stop it? In fact, as we saw last week, it was God who planned it. Maybe let us refresh our memory. Turn with me to Acts 2:23.
But why the cross? The answer we often get is this. Jesus has to die on the cross so that God can forgive us of our sins if we believe in Jesus. That is right but then some have questioned the necessity of the cross. After all, if we can forgive someone who has wronged us, why can’t God just forgive us? Why must Jesus die on the cross before God can forgive us? Can’t we just tell God we are sorry and believe in Jesus?
To ask such questions shows that we failed to grasp the gravity of our sin on one hand and the majesty and holiness of God on the other hand. In fact, the correct question is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible to do so at all. This is in light of how terrible our sin is on one hand. And how holy and majestic God is on the other hand.
This was precisely how Anselm who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century answered the question. Why can’t just God just forgive? He wrote in his book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God became a man), “If anyone imagines that God can simply forgive us as we forgive others, that person has not seriously consider the seriousness of sin and the majesty of God”. When our perception of God and man or of holiness and sin is faulty then our understanding of the atonement will also be faulty.
Sin. This word is not very popular in our modern culture. Even in the church we don’t talk about it anymore except to say Jesus died on the cross for your sins. Sin is no longer in our vocabulary whether in our society or in the church. When was the last time you hear a sermon about sin? We hear about grace all the time. In fact, just across the Causeway, we have a famous preacher of a megachurch whose focus is on the preaching about grace.
But I think our appreciation of God’s grace can only be in direct proportion to the awareness of our utter depravity or sinfulness. Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Some modern hymnals have substituted the words “a wretch” with the word “sinners”. If sin no longer get mentioned in the church, the word “sinners” will also be meaningless.
What is the essence of sin? The essence of sin is rebellion against God. The rebellion against the Sovereign of the Universe. What was so sinful about the sin of Adam and Eve? Doesn’t eating the forbidden fruit seems to be small matter? After all, how many times have our children eaten something which we had prohibited them from eating?
No what Adam and Eve did was not just about eating the forbidden food. It was rebellion. They wanted autonomy. Moral autonomy. The right to decide what is right and what is wrong rather than to have God decide what is right and what is wrong. We are no different.
Emil Brunner has this to say about sin: “Sin is defiance, arrogance, the desire to be equal with God, ….the assertion of human independence over against God,…. the constitution of the autonomous reason, morality and culture.
Sin is not sickness as some people now seems to suggest. Sin is not a momentary lapse of some moral standards, Sin’s essence is hostility against God issuing in active rebellion against him. Rom. 8:7 “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot.” Sin is shouting “Merdeka, Merdeka, Merdeka” into the face of God.
Our sin is serious. Recently there was an outrage among the people because a Datin who had grievously abused her maid were not given a custodial sentence but left off with just a bond of good behavior. Why was there such an outrage? Because the punishment just didn’t befit the crime or offence. Just like if God were to just forgive us of our sins.
Not only we couldn’t grasp the gravity of our sin, we also fail to see the majesty and holiness of the one whom we sinned against. Even Moses whom God considered as his friend was only allowed to see the backside of God. Isaiah proclaimed Woe unto himself after seeing a vision of God in the temple, high and lifted up. When God revealed himself personally to Job, Job’s reaction was to “despise” himself and to repent in dust and ashes. Ezekiel saw only ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God’ in burning fire and brilliant light, but it was enough to make him fall prostrate to the ground. Daniel too collapsed and fainted with his face to the ground after having a similar vision. What was John reaction when he saw the risen and exalted Christ? It’s recorded in Rev. 1:17 “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”
If we lost the sense of God’s transcendence, His awesomeness, His majesty, glory and holiness, we will never see the need for the cross. Neither we will be able to see the need for the cross, if we don’t see our sin as rebellion against His majesty. The cross will never make sense. The cross will never make sense if we were to compare God’s forgiveness with man’s forgiveness.
Now can we see why God just can’t forgive us even if we were to just say sorry or even repent or to believe in Him?
How then can a holy God forgive sinners, forgive his rebellious creatures while remaining true to His nature and character?
How then can God’s holiness and his love towards us sinners who are condemned be reconciled? The Old Testament provides us with the answer how can God’s people be made right with him before the coming of Jesus. It was through the sacrificial system. Lambs were sacrificed to atone for the sins of the Israelites. In the New Testament in particular the book of Hebrews shows that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice and there is no necessity for his sacrifice to be repeated unlike during the Old Testament times. The sacrifice and the shedding of blood whether in relation to the lambs or Jesus signified the substitutionary nature of the acts. They took the punishment for someone else.
On substitution, I would like to quote John Stott here. I think no one puts it better than him. “The concept of substitution may be said, then, to lie at the heart of sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and put himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.”
To help us understand further the necessity of Jesus’ death, I would like to deal with one word which is often misunderstood and rejected in relation to the cross. That is propitiation. Let us first look at three biblical texts
Rom. 3:24-25 -  “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith……
1 John 2:2 – “He is the propitiation for our sins, not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”
1 John 4:10 – “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
I’m quoting from the ESV. If you are using some other versions of the Bible like the NIV, you may not see the word propitiation. Much scholarly debate has arisen whether propitiation is the correct word to use. Well, you just have to trust me and the ESV – the Extremely Solid Version. Anyway, only this this word can adequately explain what happened at the cross and answer the question how did Jesus’ death on the cross save us? What did it save us from? Well, firstly what exactly does this word mean? It’s certainly not a common English word, at least in the 21st century. It may be a few generations ago.
To propitiate somebody means to appease or pacify his anger. Propitiation, then is the act appeasing or pacifying someone. Who then in those three passages that needed to be propitiated? God, of course. Why did he need to be propitiated? Because of our sins. We have sinned against him. Some of us may be shocked to learn for the first time that God can get angry and that there is such thing as the wrath of God that needs to be appeased or propitiated. That Jesus’ death of the cross propitiated God’s anger or wrath against us because of our sins.
Doesn’t the Bible say God is love? How then can he be angry or wrathful? Isn’t that beneath the character of God. Our problem is not with propitiation. Our problem is with the wrath of God. The problem with our problem is we confuse our own anger which is often sinful with God’s anger. Didn’t Jesus got angry when he chased out the moneychangers from the temple? “The wrath of God is his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations” as John Stott puts it. In fact, I think a God without wrath far from being a loving God is a monstrous entity in light of all the evil, injustice and oppression that we see in the world.
God’s wrath necessitates God’s Son to propitiate and only which his Son can propitiated. We are saved from God’s wrath which was propitiated by his Son.
Was God being cruel to ask His Son to appease His anger? We have already seen last week, the Son was fully committed to the Father’s plan. Far from being cruel, it would break any father’s heart to willingly sacrifice his child for the sake of another.
I have come to the end of my exposition on the cross. I feel I have not done justice to the subject. There is still so much to be said. After all, I have only spoken about five thousand words. Whereas this book is over 400 pages. And as I have said last week what I presented about penal substitutionary atonement is only one model or way to look at the cross. There are other models. But PSA is I believe the foundational model which other models need to be anchored on. I wish I can deal with them but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do so here. This morning I also have to be very selective to be able to condense 400 pages into 5000 words.
Perhaps it’s more appropriate for a full exposition to be made in a classroom rather than from a pulpit. Anyway, I would encourage you to read this book. I wouldn’t say it’s an easy book to read but I think it’s quite readable compared to some other theological books. I bought it for RM84.95 many years ago. Recently, I’m surprised to find Canaanland selling at RM79.90. Well, they are now having a Easter sale with 20% discount. So, grab it if you can.
I would like to end with a story, a poem and a song. No, I’m not going to sing. Well, let’s start with the story first. The title given is “The Long Silence” I tried to find out who was the one that wrote it. I thought Google has all the answers. But I could only find it stated as Anon. For many years I actually thought Anon is a famous writer and poet because I seems to find many poems and writings being attributed to Anon. Btw, just in case you are like me, Anon means anonymous. Anyway, here’s the story. I have changed certain words so as to make it more readable and better to be heard.
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne.
Most of them shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked loudly and with passion – with a sense of hostility and without shame.
‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ Snapped a young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror….beatings…torture…death!’
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. ‘Lynched…for no reason but for being black!’
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with bitterness in her eyes said ‘why should I suffer. It wasn’t my fault’
Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these group sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, someone horribly deformed from birth. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man!
‘Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think he is out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.’
‘At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.’
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the crowd that was assembled.
And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.
Now the poem. In Europe, God was being cast aside during the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason from about the 18th century onwards. Man was confident in his own progress. He didn’t need God anymore. This utopian dream came crashing down in the aftermath of World War 1. Although more people will die in World War 2, the senseless way in which a generation of young men were to die on the battlefields of World War 1 became the defining image of the Great War. Tens of thousands were slaughtered everyday just to gain an inch of the ground. Out of this carnage, Edward Shillito found comfort in the fact that Jesus was able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write the following poem, 
Jesus of the Scars.
If we have never sought, we seek you now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars,
We must have sight of thorn marks on thy brow;
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place,
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know your grace.

If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near;
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine,
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne,
But to our wounds only God’s wound can speak;
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

Now the song. The song is actually based on the poem, sung by Garth Hewitt. One of my favourite Christian singers.

Monday, April 15, 2019

In Our Place Condemned He Stood - Isa. 52:13 - 53:12

Actually I was assigned just Isaiah 53 as my text. But there is almost a unanimous consensus among scholars that the last three verses in the previous chapter, chapter 52 form a literary unit with Chapter 53. I think it’s better to preach from a single literary unit rather than breaking it up especially for novice or inexperienced preachers like myself. And in the following sermon I’ll just mention the passage as Isaiah 53 for easy reference. Let us read the text now.
This is the word of the Lord!
Twenty years ago statutes of ten martyrs of the 20th century were unveiled above the west gate of Westminster Abbey.  I guess one can say they are quite well represented. There are Africans, Europeans, a Chinese, a Pakistani, an American and one from Central America. There are also three women among them. They were also from different denominations, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist and even from the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church.
When we think of martyrs, we think of those who died for their faith. Well, a number of them did die for their faith but some didn’t. But you can say because of their faith, they did the things that got them killed. They stood up against injustice and oppression. People like Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Oscar Romero and Janani Luwum.
Among the ten, there was one who actually didn’t die for his faith. Neither was he killed because he championed the cause of justice. He died or was killed  for another reason. He actually volunteered to die on behalf of an individual. His name is Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest. He has since been canonized or made a saint by the Roman Catholic church. He was incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp during world war II. One day ten prisoners escaped from the camp. This prompted the deputy camp commander, to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker so as to deter further escape attempts. One of the unfortunate man, Franciszek Gajowniczek cried out, “My wife, my children!. Hearing that, Maximilian volunteered to take his place. One by one the men died leaving Maximilian as the last man living. The Nazi then gave him a lethal injection. Franciszek were to live for another 53 years dying in 1995. He was able to live because someone died on his behalf. Someone took his place. Someone became his substitute and took the fatal punishment meant for him.
The central theme in Isaiah 53 is about someone called the Servant who became the substitute of many and took the fatal punishment meant for them. The Servant suffered more horribly than starvation and was put to death in a much more horrible manner than lethal injection. The passage is the last of what came to be known as the four Servant Songs of Isaiah. The first one in chapter 42, second one in chapter 49 and the third one in chapter 50.
Before we consider the text in a more detailed manner, we need to first address a question. Who is this Servant that Isaiah spoke about?
There are many different theories and interpretation. Some think that the Servant was the prophet Isaiah himself or some other unidentified prophet, others think that the nation Israel or the remnant of Israel is the Servant. Besides those, there are many outrageous theories which we need not be bothered. The main problem with identifying the Servant with Isaiah or any other prophet is there is no evidence that prophets suffered for the sins of the people. Yes, they did suffered, some terribly so. But they suffered because of their ministry and for their uncompromising message. The same problem arises if we were to identify the Servant with Israel or the remnant of Israel. Israel didn’t suffer for the nations. Instead, they suffered at the hands of some nations because of their sin.
For Christians, reading the New Testament, there is no doubt who Isaiah was referring to when he spoke about the Suffering Servant. No other passage in the OT has been cited directly or alluded to more often in the NT than this passage in Isaiah. Let’s turn to Acts 8:26-40. It’s a long passage but I think we should read it.
Which passage of Scripture was the Ethiopian eunuch reading? He was reading a passage from Isaiah 53, vv 7-8. What did the Ethiopian ask Philip? He asked Philip, Who was it that Isaiah was speaking about? Was it Isaiah himself or someone else? What was Philip’s answer? We don’t have his exact answer but Luke, the author of Acts recorded for us that Philip told the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus.
So, can we identify who the Servant is in Isaiah 53 by reading Act 8? Is it obvious? No, according to one famous OT scholar. He commented that Philip didn’t identify Jesus as the Servant but only used the passage to preach the good news about Jesus. My only reaction to this is. (Facepalm). I have great respect for Bible scholars and their scholarship. Many have blessed the church with their labour. But sometimes, some of them can do more harm than good. Because some of them are not even Christians. For them, the Bible is just any piece of literature to be taken apart or dissected for their dissertation or thesis. They don’t submit to the authority of the Bible.
Now if you are still not convinced that the Servant in Isaiah 53 is Jesus look at what Jesus himself has to say. Turn with me to Luke 22:37. Jesus is speaking “For I tell you this Scripture must be fulfilled in me. “And he must be numbered with transgressors.” For what is written about me has its fulfillment. Which passage did Jesus quote? Isaiah 53.12. What was just Jesus saying? The he in Isaiah 53:12, the he who was numbered with transgressors is none other than him, Jesus.
As we moved through the passage in Isaiah, you will be amazed at how so many things about the Servant in that passage got fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Well, skeptics may say that Jesus purposely acted in such a away as to fulfill those prophecies. It may be possible to do so for some of them but for many others they are beyond the control of Jesus. Let us go back to our text.
The passage can be divided nicely in 5 parts. Each part taking 3 verses.
1.    The Exaltation of the Servant Announced and His Work of Purification (52:13-12)
2.    The Rejection of the Servant By His People (53:1-3)
3.    The Substitutionary Suffering of the Servant (53:4-6)
4.    The Injustice Done To the Servant and his Death (53:7-9)
5.    The Ultimate Triumph of the Servant (53:10-12)
This fourth Servant Song starts the same way as the first one in chapter 42, Behold my servant. And because the Servant will act wisely and thus be successful in his mission, he will be high and lifted up and shall be exalted. The phrase “high and lifted up” appears four times in the book of Isaiah and no where else in the OT. The three other times it appears, it is used to describe God. We are probably familiar with the vision of Isaiah and his calling in chapter 6. There Isaiah saw God high and lifted up. This is another problem if we were to identify the Servant with Isaiah or any other prophet or even the nation Israel. It is hard to imagine anyone or any nation can be high and lifted up to be like God. Only the Son of God can be high and lifted up and exalted. Doesn’t this echo Philippians 2:9-11 “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

But before the Servant can be exalted, he has to undergo horrendous suffering so much so he is disfigured. V. 14 “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of children of mankind”. Although nothing is said about his suffering yet, I agree with one commentator that given the context of the whole passage, this disfigurement or sub-human appearance is not his normal appearance throughout life. It was caused by the suffering which was inflicted upon him. This brings to mind Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. Don’t you think it’s pretty bloody? The person hanging on the cross doesn’t look human, does he? Mel Gibson must have read this verse in Isaiah and unlike some bible scholars accepted that the verse is referring to Jesus. This is just pure speculation.
If the people of God were astonished or appalled by the appearance of the Servant due to his suffering, the kings of the other nations stand amazed and in awe. Somehow, they understood what is happening to the servant of Yahweh and what he will do. They were silenced with reverence. Paul uses the second part of v.15 to make known his intention to spread the gospel to where it has not been proclaimed so that “those who have never been told of him will see and those who have never heard will understand.” You can read that in Rom. 15:21.
The Gentiles who were not God’s people were so taken aback or lost for words by God’s salvation made possible by his servant’s work of sprinkling. In the OT, sprinkling often has to do with atonement if it is the sprinkling with blood or purification if with water. The Gentiles will be cleansed and be made acceptable to God because of the work of sprinkling done by the servant.
In contrast, God’s own people were still very blurred. The Gentiles understand what they formerly did not hear; Israel on the contrary, does not believe that which they have heard. Vv 1-3 is sort of a confession by God’s people, the Israelites, that they have misunderstood Yahweh’s servant. Part of the misunderstanding I think stems from their expectation. Their expectation of their Deliverer or Saviour.
Few year ago I hardly stepped into a cinema. Then I took a break from my job. While my wife was working very hard in the office, I went to the movies. Now the role has been reversed. I’m now working very hard while she watches Korean drama at home. Anyway I think in 2016 I watched more movies than the past 10 years before that. I became hooked on movies about superheroes, The Avengers, Capt. America, Wonder Woman, Spiderman and the latest being the Black Panther. I’m looking forward to the Infinity Wars. I guess all of us love superheroes don’t we? And all of us have certain expectation of our superheroes, how they should look like, tall, strong, handsome or beautiful like Wonder Woman and with some super duper powers. The ability to zap  evil doers or the bad guys to another galaxy. But in human history, not the Marvel or DC Universe, sometimes we do come across unlikely and unconventional heroes.
One of the best movies I have seen this year was the Darkest Hour. It is  about the life of Winston Churchill during those few crucial months at the beginning of world war 2, where Britain was left standing alone to face the Nazi war machine. Churchill at that time was already 66 and can be considered past his prime. He also came with a lot of baggages and past failures. Many blamed him for the military disaster at Gallipoli during world war 1. The Allies suffered more than 300,000 casualties at Gallipoli.
The King actually had serious doubt about his capability to assume the responsibilities of a Prime Minister. Not only the King, but many of his colleagues as well. And of course, Churchill was anything but handsome or attractive at that time. I think he was sometimes depicted as a bulldog by some cartoonists. But I think it wouldn’t be too far off to say that Churchill saved Britain and the western world from Hitler. In Churchill we have an unlikely hero. Btw, after watching the movie, I wrote on my FB that the actor who portrayed Churchill should win an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance. My prophecy came true. Gary Oldman won the Oscar for Best Actor few weeks ago.
The Israelites were looking for a superhero to deliver them. A Capt Israel perhaps. Well, at least now they have Wonder Woman. (Sorry for those who have not been watching superheroes movies. Ask me afterwards what’s the connection between Israel and Wonder Woman). Perhaps, the Israelites were looking for someone with a kingly or regal appearance. Someone with power. Someone who fits the description, the arm of the Lord. Deliverers are often dominating, forceful, attractive people who by their personal magnetism draw people to themselves.
But instead comes along someone from a lowly, humble and not all too promising background. Instead of an oak tree or the cedar of Lebanon, he is compared to a young plant, a root out of a dry ground. Instead of being like Saul, the first king of Israel, tall, handsome and kingly, this one has no form or majesty. Few would have taken a second look at him. He wouldn’t have merited a second thought.
Very very ordinary. So because of his ordinariness he was being rejected, despised and counted for nothing.
Vv. 4-6 represent the center of the whole passage if we break the passage into 5 parts. Each part taking 3 verses. Here I believe we have the central theme of the whole passage. The theme of substitutionary suffering of the Servant. You just cannot miss the substitutionary nature of the Servant’s suffering. The Servant didn’t suffer because of his sin. That was the mistake made by the Israelites, second part of verse 4 “yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.” One of the prevailing worldviews at that time and even now is people suffer because they have sinned. Maybe they have offended God. No, the Servant didn’t suffer because he has sinned against God.
The Servant didn’t suffer for a cause. Neither did he suffer because someone made him suffer although later we will see that God did played a role in his suffering. The Servant suffered for God’s people. The language of substitution cannot be clearer in these 3 verses. Look at the pronouns.
What did he bear? Our griefs. Our sorrows. Why was he pierced? Because of our transgressions. Why was he crushed? Because of our iniquities. The verbs “pierced” and “crushed” are two of the strongest words in Hebrew language to describe a violent and painful death. Pierced conveys the idea of pierced through and wounded to death. Crushed conveys the sense of beaten in pieces, destroyed. Read the account in the gospels about the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus and you will appreciate the verbs used here, pierced and crushed.
Upon whom did the chastisement or punishment fallen upon? It was upon him, the Servant. What does that result in? It brought us peace. Peace with God. By whose wounds are we healed? By his, the Servant’s wounds. What did the Lord laid on him? The iniquity of us all.
Do you see the pattern in the pronouns used? He and our, him and us. We should be grieving and be sorrowful. Instead he bear our griefs and sorrows. We should be pierced and crushed for our sins. Instead he was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.  We should have been alienated and cut off from God. Instead he was punished or chastised so that we can have peace with God. We should be spiritually sick. Instead he was wounded so that by his wounds we are healed. We should be bearing the consequences of our sin. Instead our sins were laid on him. The Servant took our place just like how Maximilian took the place of Fraciszek.
The idea of substitutionary suffering of the Servant is not only confined to these three verses. Look at v.8 “he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. V. 11 “make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. V.12 “yet he bore the sins of many”.
The idea that someone taking the punishment of another so that the other can be saved can be found from the beginning of the OT. In Exodus the Israelites were told to slaughter a lamb and take some of its blood and put it on their doorposts so that judgment that was coming on the Egyptians households will be passed over from the Israelite households. The paschal lamb died on behalf of the firstborn of each Jewish household.
We also see in Leviticus 16 on the Day of Atonement, one goat was offered as a sin offering for the people. Another one called the scapegoat who was supposed to symbolically bear the sins of the people was to be sent into the wilderness.
What do the NT writers say about Jesus? Do they see Jesus having suffered on our behalf? Do they see Jesus as having taken our place? That he was being punished instead of us? Can we see the idea of substitutionary suffering in their writngs? If we have identified Jesus as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, then we would expect the NT writers to see the suffering and death of Jesus as a punishment on our behalf in order to atone for our sins. Just like what we see the Suffering Servant did in Isaiah 53. And that is exactly what the NT writers saw.
2 Cor. 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. God put our sins on Jesus who is sinless, who knew no sin. For whose sake? For our sake. Why? So that we can become righteous before God. Isaiah 53:6 – God laid upon the Servant the iniquity of us all.
Gal. 3:13  - “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”. Meaning cursed is everyone who is crucified. Who is it that is supposed to be cursed? Each one of us. But what did Christ do? He took our place. He became cursed on our behalf as he died the most horrible death on the cross. So that we can be redeemed. So that we can be healed. So that we can have peace with God. So that we can be reconciled to God.
From Paul, we now turn to Peter. 1 Peter 2:22-25. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. Peter is quoting here the second part of verse 9 of Isaiah 53. Peter continues. When He was reviled, he did not revile in return, when he suffered he did not threaten but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. Peter is here alluding to v.7 of Isaiah 53. V.24 He himself bore our sin in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. Whose sin did Jesus bear? Our sin. As a result we might die to sin and live to righteousness. The same thing Isaiah said of the servant of the Lord. Look again at v. 11-12 of Isaiah 53. There Peter quoted directly from the last part of Isa. 53:5 “By his wounds you have been healed
V.25 is interesting. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” What did Isaiah 53:6 says about the people of God. They were like sheep who have strayed. Can you see the idea of Christ being our substitute here? Taking our sins or bearing our sins so that we like lost sheep can return to the fold. Surely it’s clear which passage in OT that Peter thought of when he wrote these few verses.
Lastly 1 Pet 3:18 – For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. The righteous, that is Christ in place of the unrighteous, that is us. Again here is the language of substitution and punishment.
Isaiah 53 is a very important text to the NT writers in their understanding of the work of Christ. As mentioned before, it is the most quoted OT text in the NT. Not only direct quotations but as we have seen, allusions as well. Someone said that if Isaiah 53 is lost we can reconstruct it from the NT. Maybe that’s an exaggeration but the truth is not too far off.
So we can see that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (or PSA in short) of Christ is clearly taught in the NT. JI Packer considers it to be the “best part of the best news that the world has ever heard”. Let me explain a bit here about this term. Penal has to do with punishment. Just like we have our Penal Code where it lays down the offences and the punishment prescribed for the respective offences. For example s. 302 of the Malaysian Penal Code is about murder and if a person is convicted of murder, the punishment is death. So PSA is about Christ being our substitute, taking on the punishment that was supposed to be inflicted on us in order to make atonement for our sins.
This understanding of the work of Christ on the cross i.e. Christ taking our place on it, suffering and dying on our behalf to save us from the wrath of God is something that the Reformers especially Calvin emphasized. To them it was something very central to the gospel. It has been accepted by those who professed to be evangelicals. Some of our hymns carried this theme. One which we are going to sing afterwards goes like this
Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned he stood
Sealed my pardon with his blood, Hallelujah, what a Savior.
Another one
Was it for crimes that I have done, He groaned upon the tree
Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree
Well might the sun in darkness hide, and shut his glories in
When Christ the mighty Maker died, For man the creature’s sin
And another one
What Thou, my Lord has suffered, was all for sinners sake
Mine, mine was the transgression, But Thine the deadly pain
But there were those who objected to this doctrine even during Calvin’s days. They were in the minority until maybe about the early 19th century.
Today we have many evangelical Christians who object to this notion of PSA. I do admit that PSA is just one way of looking at the atonement of Christ. There are other ways which we can understand the work of Christ on the cross. But I believe PSA lies at the very heart of the gospel or as Packer puts it, the best part of the best news. The main objection to PSA is I guess that it’s unfair. It is unjust. It is barbaric. How can God allow an innocent man to suffer on behalf sinners? But those who criticize PSA forget that that innocent man was God himself. Sometimes they also see in this doctrine the son of God pleading with his angry father not to punish sinners. How then can God be love?
They fail to understand that the plan of redemption was a trinitarian effort. It was initiated by the Father, accomplished by the Son with Holy Spirit applying the benefits to sinners.
No, the plan of redemption wasn’t just the idea of God the Son. This is consistent with what we have read in Isaiah 53. V.6 The Lord has laid on him…..V. 10 It was the will of the LORD to crush him…..God the Father initiated the whole thing. The NT agrees with Isaiah. Acts 2:23 – This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. It was God who sets everything up.
However, the Son willingly and gladly obey the Father setting his face towards the cross. John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Vv. 17-18 “For this reason the Father loves me because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Does this sounds like cosmic or divine child abuse as some critics of PSA allege?
Coming back to our text, after the center portion vv.4-6, vv.7-9 confirm that ultimately the Servant will not only suffer but will die. Before he died he will be unjustly treated. Justice was denied to him. Remember Jesus’ sham trial before his execution. Well, the good news come in vv.10-12. V.10 he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days? How does one who has died see his offspring and prolong his days? Doesn’t this point to the resurrection of Jesus Christ? All of us who now believes in him can be considered his spiritual offspring. Isaiah 53 ends with the Servant who suffered, died, buried and rose again making intercession for sinners. Let’s turn to Hebrew 7:25 “Consequently he (Jesus) is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Now the suffering Servant has become the ever living Priest.
In 1994, Fraciszek Gajowniczek who lived for another 53 years visited the St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church of Houston. He told his translator that “so long as he has breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe” This was the response from a person who was supposed to die towards the one who died on his behalf. What then should be our response towards the one with nail pierced hands, and blood soaked brow. Towards the one whose back was whipped until probably pieces of flesh can be seen hanging from it. What then should be our response towards the one who hung on that cursed tree crying out My God My God why hast Thou forsaken me as he bore the sins of you and me?
How can we not exclaim with Charles Wesley, Amazing love, how can that be! That Thou my God should die for me! Well, dear brothers and sisters, I shall leave your response to the work of the Holy Spirit in you as you continue to consider what Christ has done for you.
Dear friends, if you have not yet believe in the Suffering Servant who is now high and lifted up, there can be only one response. Believe in him. He has paid the price for you. He has taken your punishment on your behalf. All you need to do is to put your faith in Him and sing with us Hallelujah! What a Saviour!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Meditations on Zephaniah (3)

Zephaniah 3

If the people of Judah in particular those in Jerusalem were relieved after hearing about how God will punish their enemies, they were in for a shock as God has not finished with them yet. Verse 3 depicts what we would term as a failed state where there is a complete breakdown in the institutions of governance. Instead of governing, they became tools of oppression. In verse 4 we see that the spiritual leaders were as bad as the civil leaders. All these happens because they have rebelled against God in ignoring Him, not trusting Him and distancing themselves from Him (vv.1-2).

In contrast to the sick condition of the people of Judah, Zephaniah reveals a God who is both righteous and just (v.5). In addition, He is a God who is compassionate by warning the people through His acts in history if only they are willing to learn (vv. 6-7). Verses 6 and 7 are strikingly similar to Amos 4:6-11 where God brought about one after another natural disasters and military defeat in the hope that the people of the northern kingdom, Israel, will repent. However, all these are met with the almost heartbreaking refrain, “yet you did not return to me” making God’s judgment inevitable. It was the same in the case of Judah (v.8).

The Psalmist says “ The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). Yes, slow to anger but not without anger. We need to be sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting and examine ourselves daily to see if we have in any way fallen away. Make David’s prayer in Ps. 139:23-24 our daily prayer. We take comfort in having a Father who will discipline us lovingly and not capriciously. We know that we will always be forewarned if only we are open to God’s leading.

Verse 9 marks the turning point of Zephaniah. God’s marvelous grace is revealed here. Left alone, we will never repent. Repentance starts with the work of God in the people themselves. The ten “I wills” from verses 9-20 shows God’s resoluteness in restoring His people.

The prophecy of Zephaniah starts with a message of judgment and ends with a message of hope and restoration. It reveals a God who is righteous and just, who will not tolerate sin but yet at the same time full of grace and mercy. Wrath and love met at the cross of Jesus Christ. Justice and mercy became reconciled at Calvary.