Jesus the Divine Servant: Suffering, Substitution, Exaltation

Before taking Theology of the New Testament with Dr. Thomas Schreiner, I was familiar with the concept of the servant of the Lord. But my understanding was sketchy: it lacked cohesive structure. After I heard Dr. Schreiner’s lecture on this topic and studied the section in his book that deals with it, I grasped the overall framework, thoroughly enough, at least, to give a summary here. As part of Christology, the study of Jesus as the servant of the Lord compels me to stand in awe–and worship. I’ve framed this topic in answer to three key questions: (1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?” (2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as the Isaiah’s servant of the Lord? (3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

(1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?”

In order to understand Jesus as the servant of the Lord, we must investigate this term in Old Testament context, specifically Isaiah’s prophecy. In some passages, Isaiah clearly uses “servant” as a referent for the nation of Israel (41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4). But in other passages, Isaiah uses “servant” to refer to something distinct from Israel: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6). In this passage the servant must be distinct from Israel becomes he redeems Israel and brings salvation to other nations. We see this distinction also in Isaiah 42 where the servant is commissioned to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isaiah 42:7). Thus, this “servant” in Isaiah cannot refer to Israel exclusively.

As we read Isaiah’s famous passage on the suffering servant (52:13-53:12), we see even more clearly the features of this servant. He will be exalted (52:13) yet marred beyond recognition (14). He will bear Israel’s sorrows and stand as substitute for the punishment of their sins (53:4-5). Somehow his life will extend beyond the “grave,” for he will “see his offspring” and “prolong his days” (53:9-10). Thus, we see not only that this distinct servant redeems Israel, but also how he redeems Israel—by vicarious suffering.

We find it clear that by “servant,” Isaiah could mean either the nation of Israel or a person who is distinct from Israel. But this question lingers: “If this individual is not the nation of Israel, how are the two related?” Isaiah 53:12 provides a clue when it says that the servant “was numbered with the transgressors.” If we understand “the transgressors” to mean individual Israelites, then the servant is a part of Israel, yet distinct from it. Dr. Schreiner suggests that the servant (distinct from Israel) serves as a representative of Israel. As Israel’s representative, the servant “is both Israel and transcends Israel” (New Testament Theology, 264).

(2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as Isaiah’s servant of the Lord?

Matthew, Mark and Luke do not explicitly link Jesus to Isaiah’s suffering servant. But they drop enough clues to lead us to this conclusion. In Luke’s gospel, for example, Jesus claims that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53 when he states his mission for coming into the world: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The words “serve,” “ransom” and “many” provide links to Isaiah 52:12 (“servant”), 53:5 (“the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”), and 10-11 (“many”).

John’s gospel forges an even stronger connection between Jesus of Nazareth and Isaiah’s servant. His theme of Jesus being “lifted up”(John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) hearkens back to Isaiah 52:13: “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” We sense that John was immersed in the words and ideas of Isaiah, with his theme of people’s failure to believe and hardening their hearts (John 12:40, cf. Isaiah 52:15, 53:1).

(3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

From Isaiah and the gospel writers, we understand that Jesus’ identity as the divine servant points to his role of sacrificial substitute for humankind (Mark 10:45; Isaiah 53:5). Whereas Israel failed to perfectly serve the Lord, Jesus steps in as Israel’s perfect representative and bears the punishment for her failures (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus’s vicarious service and suffering becomes the pathway to his exaltation (John 12:32-36). Consistent with God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the benefits of the servant’s (Jesus’) exaltation extend beyond the borders of Israel, bringing the offer of salvation to all nations of the earth (Isaiah 49:5-7; John 12:20-23).





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