The Servant

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, won a strategic battle with comparative ease and little loss of life. When asked for an explanation of his victory over the enemy, he said, “The enemy had seven cooks and one spy but I had seven spies and one cook.” In other words, the enemy lost because it majored on the minors and minored on the majors.

Most of the critical debate over the identity of the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:6-7; 59:5-7) has made the same mistake. So much energy has been spent debating whether the servant is a corporate entity (i.e. the nation of Israel) or an individual (the Prophet, a King, or the long-awaited Messiah) that another important issue has been overlooked. The identity of the servant is not as theologically significant as the actual role of servant in ministry.

The role of the servant in the scripture references suggested for today includes three elements. First, the servant was to represent Yahweh to the nations – especially Israel. The spirit of Yahweh would be upon the servant strengthening him, and in every respect, the servant would be obedient to Yahweh (42:1; 49:7; 50:5, 7).

Second, the servant would also be to declare Yahweh’s righteousness and justice. Not only would the servant seek to restore the nation of Israel, but the servant would also be to proclaim the salvation of Yahweh to all the Gentiles (42:1, 3-4; 49:6).

Third, the servant would take upon himself suffering for the sake of doing Yahweh’s bidding. In other words, the servant would suffer for the cause of bringing the message of Yahweh’s redemption to the nations (50:5-6). This was a revolutionary idea for the people of Israel who usually understood suffering to be a mark of one’s infidelity to the covenant.

It is easily understood why the writers of the New Testament gravitated toward the Servant Songs as an interpretive device for understanding the ministry of Jesus. The role of the servant described in these poems finds its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

Jesus represents Father God to the nations and peoples of the world. He is able to do this because Jesus is God, the Son of the Father. Consider the following selected verses from the New Testament about Jesus ministry:

• In Matthew 1:23, Jesus is called Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
• In John. 1:1, Jesus is referred to as the “Word” who is called “God.”
• In John 10:30, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.”
• In Colossians 1:16 it teaches that God created all things through Jesus.
• In Colossians 2:8-9 we also learn that Jesus was the “fullness of the Godhead.”
• In Hebrews 1:8 the Father calls the Son “God.”

These are just a sample of the verses in the New Testament that indicate the Divinity if Jesus, and therefore the reality that he, uniquely, is able to express (represent) the Godhead to creation.

Next, Servant Jesus is also the one who declares the Divine gift of salvation to the world. The scriptures teach us that the very name “Jesus” means “Savior” – because he shall “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Paul also notes, “Everyone that call on the name of the Lord (Jesus) shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). So, it even a beyond simple declaration. Servant Jesus is also the mediation of that salvation. Jesus, as God the Son, became a human being, in order to mediate the saving grace of the Godhead to all humanity.

St. Athanasius, one of the early Church Fathers, once wrote:

“Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all people were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of humanity is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against humanity have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.” (On the Incarnation, Chapter 2, paragraph 9)

Echoing this, T.F. Torrance wrote:

Perhaps the most fundamental truth which we have to learn in the Christian Church, or rather relearn since we have suppressed it, it that the Incarnation was the coming of God to save us in the heart of our fallen and depraved humanity…That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator. (The Mediation of Christ, 1983).

Finaly, Servant Jesus also suffered to bring us the gift of salvation. That this is so is hardly any great revelation to most. The story of Servant Jesus cannot be told without the inclusion of the cross. Its connection to the Incarnation and the heart of the Trinity towards fallen humanity is unmistakable. In the book of Philippians, Paul makes this clear in a beautiful poem/hymn that was sung as a part of the worship of the early church.

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-11)

Now the suffering of Jesus was not to placate an angry and vengeful deity, and some have proposed. Rather the cross is an expression of the suffering love of God – Father, Son, and Spirit – for broken humanity. In his book, Jesus and the Undoing of Humanity, Baxter Kruger puts it like this:

Over 40 times, John tells us in his gospel that Jesus Christ was sent by God the Father. John saw that the coming of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, flowed out of the endless love of the Father for us and out of his unyielding determination that His purpose for us would be fulfilled. The death of Jesus Christ is the revelation of the fact that the Father has never abandoned us, never forsaken us, that He refuses to go back on his dream to include us in the circle of life. Jesus death is a part of the fulfillment of the eternal purpose of God, part of the seamless movement designed to lay hold of the human race and lift us up into the Trinitarian life of God.

The New Testament writers were taken with the picture of the Suffering Servant poems in the book of Isaiah as a device to interpret the role of Jesus in the world. But what they saw in Jesus was even better than the writer of Isaiah could imagine.

Jesus represented God – but he also WAS God.

Jesus declared the saving grace of God, but he also mediated that grace as God in human flesh.

Jesus suffered for the sake of our salvation, but that suffering was an expression of the Godhead’s great love for us and God’s desire to include us in the circle of Divine love (what many early Church Father called perichoresis, or the Divine Dance).

May this Advent and Christmas season be a celebration for you of the LIFE that Jesus brings you in the Incarnation, the cross, and beyond.

© by Dr. William M. Nieporte, Sr., 2010

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