Sometimes the Christian life seems to be something too difficult to live. Sometimes there is too much pain, emotional or physical or even spiritual. It seems as if God is just ignoring our prayers for the difficult times to be over. I would be surprised if nobody listening to this had been through an experience like that. Over the last fifteen years I have had many times when this was the case. I will just recount one of these. When Isobel was in Year 9 and nearly 14 years old she contracted glandular fever. This is not an uncommon thing for teenagers. It makes you very tired for a while. But Isobel did not get better. Instead she stayed tired and unable to function. There were days when she could go to school and other days when she was unable to do anything. At the end of the first year she was so sick that she could not go to school at all for two months because she was sleeping for 16 hours a day.
We prayed and even had pastors come and lay hands on her. She had times of seeming to get better and then she would go back to being unable to function again. This went on for years. Izzy spent some time in PMH and had many outpatient visits, but they could not provide any kind of effective help. During this time I reached a place where I think I would have gladly crawled naked across broken glass if that would have made her well. I became very angry with God because he seemed oblivious to my prayers for my daughter. For some time I could not pray at all because I was so angry with God. I even went so far as to tell God I hated him. (I was called to repentance over this by Zech 1:3 “Return to me” declares the LORD Almighty “and I will return to you.”)
This time was a painful one. It is hard watching your child go through something so difficult and being unable to help. I needed to come to a point in my Christian life where I could trust God in the midst of the pain. I am not the only Christian who needs to come to a place of trusting God in the midst of pain, whether that pain is physical, emotional or spiritual. I believe that understanding the passage I will discuss today will help each of us come to that place of trust, because the pain is not without purpose. God has not simply abandoned us to evil and left us in a sea of meaninglessness. He is doing something powerful through our pain.
The passage I am going to speak about is a familiar one, although the particular point I am going to make is perhaps not as familiar. I will be concentrating today on Isa 53:10 “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” Firstly, we need to understand this verse within the context of the whole chapter. Here is a quick summary of Isaiah 53. The suffering servant of the LORD was rejected by his people and suffered for the sins of others. He was innocent, yet he was slaughtered like a lamb and he died and was buried. This is the upshot of verses 1-9. The suffering servant is of course Jesus who was crucified for us and died and was buried. Verse 10 tells us that the servant of the LORD will not remain dead. “He will see his offspring, he will prolong his days.” This is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus. So Isaiah 53 contains the whole gospel because it mentions both the cross and the resurrection of the messiah.
Now that we have some context I can concentrate on the statement which is the centre of today’s message “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer … and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” I believe that coming to grips with this verse will go a long way towards coming to grips with the times in the Christian life when things are painful and do not make sense, when we wonder what on earth is God doing and why will this grief, pain, illness, disappointment, loneliness, weariness, etc not come to an end. So today I am going to do two things: I will discuss what this verse means in the life of Jesus and then I will discuss what this means in the lives of Christians. And here I am making the assumption that the experience of Jesus has priority over our own experience and that as disciples of Christ we share in the experience of Jesus. I will expand this a little as I go along.
“Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” To begin with is seems strange that God would will to crush his own Son. And yet it was utterly necessary. Right at the beginning of the book of Isaiah it is clear that animal sacrifices which the people offered were not pleasing to God. “‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ Says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats’” (Isaiah 1:11). This was because their worship of God was unacceptable due to their sinful hypocrisy (vv 10-17). In fact Isaiah 53 tells us that the servant was crushed because of our sins. “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). So because our worship of God is never adequate and our sins are always before him the LORD willed to crush his own Son in order to rectify the situation and heal us of our sin.
Yet it is not enough that Jesus was crushed, it is also clear in the Bible that he willingly submitted to being crushed. In Hebrews we are told:
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am– it is written about me in the scroll– I have come to do your will, O God.’” First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:5-10).
Here the willingness of Jesus is plain. Instead of the animal sacrifices which were prescribed by the Mosaic Law Jesus offered his own body as a sacrifice. This was pleasing to God. This is not something we are unfamiliar with. But what is important here is that Jesus was not simply a victim. He was willing to be crushed by God. He was willing to be obedient and to go through the pain, the grief and the abandonment. This is mentioned in the Gospels as well. When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane he said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
It was the Father’s will for Jesus to be crushed with pain and grief and it was Jesus’ will to be crushed by his Father. Both Jesus and the Father knew that this experience was utterly necessary for the salvation of the world. So this involves more than being crushed. The experience of the cross would be meaningless and ineffective for the salvation of the world if Jesus had not gone to the cross willingly. Many people experience pain, but the suffering of Jesus was redemptive because of his deliberate willingness to lay down his life.
But of course the cross is not the end of the story. Isaiah 53:10 goes beyond the events of the cross and on to the resurrection of Jesus. “He will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” Because Jesus willingly humbled himself and submitted to being crushed by the Father, he was raised from the dead and now “the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” We see this idea expressed quite plainly in the NT. Humbling and exaltation are explained in Philippians 2:
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:8-11).
Jesus the God-man was exalted as a human being because as a human being he submitted to the horrors of crucifixion. The name which is above every name is now a human name, Jesus. Every knee will bow to the name of Jesus and confess him as Lord. When Isaiah 53:10 says “the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” it is referring to the exaltation of Jesus. From the day of his resurrection until eternity and the will of the LORD will prosper in the hand of Jesus.
This pattern of being crushed and then prospering is not only the pattern of the life of Jesus, it is the pattern in the life of Christians. This is what makes sense of our suffering. We are a people who are given the privilege of sharing in the pattern of Jesus’ life. Jesus said, “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (Matt 10:24-25) And again he said, “I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16). Therefore it should not surprise us that what happened in the life of Jesus is to varying degrees repeated in the life of Christians.
The writers of the NT are never surprised by the suffering of Christians. Let me give you some examples. In Acts, after the apostles had continued to preach the gospel when they had been told to stop they were imprisoned and beaten. Acts 5:41 records that “As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name.” Paul explains in 2 Cor 1:5 that “the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives”. He tells that Philippian church that “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil 1:29). Heb 13:12-13 exhorts us to bear the abuse which Christ endured. I could go on, but the point is that suffering as a Christian should not come as some kind of surprise to us. It will happen. The particular suffering and the extent of the suffering differs from person to person, but the fact of suffering remains the same.
But we do not endure suffering in a pointless and meaningless way. Just as Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb 12:2) knowing that he would then sit “down at the right hand of the throne of God”, we can be sure that suffering of various kinds is a precursor to glory. Paul writes, “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Peter says something similar, “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13). Paul connects our suffering with Christ now to our future resurrection. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11). Just as Jesus had to humble himself and go to the cross before he could be raised to glory, so too Christians must undergo suffering before we are raised to share in his glory.
However, suffering does not only have a pay off in the resurrection of the dead. There is a truly powerful result in the present when we submit to the suffering, pain and difficulty which God brings into our lives. The evidence of this is found in the life of the apostle Paul. Just after Paul was converted on the road to Damascus God sent a man named Ananias to Paul. God told Ananias “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16). The apostle Paul did carry the gospel to the Gentiles and many Jews. He went through a lot of hardships, which he recounts in 2 Cor 11. He was imprisoned, beaten, frequently in danger, often hungry and thirsty, sometimes without clothes and without sleep. But the fruit of all this suffering is something immense. He planted churches across much of the known world; he wrote a third of the NT; his words hold great authority to this day. We should not underestimate the great things which God did in and through Paul because he was willing to go through suffering. Like Jesus, Paul was both humbled and given great success.
Suffering and difficulties come, then, in the Christian life and this is no surprise. We are sharing in the suffering of Jesus and we will share in his glory. Even now we can in many ways share in his success and his authority. But in order to share that authority and success we must submit willingly to the trials which God brings. Just as Jesus willingly surrendered to the cross, we must put complete trust in our Father as he does the work of crushing us. It is only possible to willingly submit to God crushing us if we know that he is our Father who loves us. Otherwise we will rail against what he is trying to do in us. Hebrews 12 addresses this matter of trusting in God as a good Father.
You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:4-11).
It is interesting that in verse 6 the writer says that God “scourges every son he receives.” This is very strong word. This is what happened to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. When Jesus predicted his death he said, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up” (Matt 20:18-19). Before Jesus was crucified he was scourged (John 19:1). Jesus could submit to this scourging because he knew that it was the will of his Father, and he knew his Father. Before his arrest Jesus prayed “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). This is the only time in the Gospels when Jesus addressed God as “Abba, Father”. This is a term of intense intimacy. It is a term of trust, as a child trusts a parent. It was because he was able to trust his Father that he was able to submit his will to the Father and to go to the cross.
If we do not know God as loving Father then it will be difficult to live through the scourging which he brings. There is a strong element of trust which becomes necessary as life becomes more difficult. It is easy to believe that God is good when everything is easy and enjoyable, when there are no troubles, no suffering, no questions. But when life becomes hard questions start to arise like “Why this pain? How long must I endure this?” Sometimes there are no answers from God. Sometimes it seems unending and even meaningless. This is where we must do what the passage in Hebrews tells us and “submit to the Father of our spirits and live”. This is possible because we can share in the sufferings of Christ and share in his trust in his Father. It is this willingness to trust God in the depths of pain that enables God to transform the pain into success.
Suffering and difficulties will come in the Christian life. We cannot avoid these. But these are not meaningless. God gives us purpose in the pain. To go back to the beginning: “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” It is the will of God to crush us from time to time. We enter into the experience of Jesus at different times to different degrees. But we also do this in different ways. The Hebrew word translated here as “cause him to suffer” has a variety of meanings. It can mean: weakness, sickness, grief, wounding, sick from love, sick unto dying, strain, disease, bruising, or being sick from hope deferred. The point being that there are many different ways in which we might be crushed by God and by circumstances.
But the true good news is that God will bring success as a result of this crushing. The will of the LORD will prosper in your hand because of the suffering which you go through. When I get up to speak these days I do so with an authority which I could not have unless I had gone through some pain. The more trials which God puts you through the more he will use you for kingdom purposes. This is what success means for a Christian. Success and prosperity are not material but do involve being powerfully used of God to increase his kingdom, to change the lives of others, to comfort people with the comfort you have received from God, to declare powerfully the wonders of his grace, to see people set free from bondage to sin, to give other people hope. God will give you this kind of success to the degree that you are willing to allow him to scourge you and to crush you with grief and pain. Only as we trust our Father in these things will we be able to make meaning from what seems to be meaningless.