Jews for Jesus reported that recently 100 Jews on the streets of Tel Aviv were asked, “Who do you think the 53rd chapter of Isaiah describes?” Most were unfamiliar with the passage and were asked to read it before answering. After doing so, many conceded that they did not know to whom it referred. Christians believe that Jesus and his suffering is the theme of Isaiah 53. Three times the word “suffering” is mentioned. Jesus was “a man of suffering, familiar with pain” (v. 3). It was his Father’s will to “cause him to suffer” (v. 10). And “after he has suffered,” he would “see the light of life and be satisfied” (v. 11). Of this great chapter Martin Luther said, “Every Christian ought to be able to repeat this chapter by heart.”
A minister in Boston once gave his children a rather complicated jigsaw puzzle to work on while he was gone on a call. When he returned to the house he was surprised to find they had finished the puzzle. “How did you manage to put it together so quickly” he asked. The children replied, “It was easy. We found a picture of Jesus on the back.” The evangelist Philip saw Jesus as the man in question in Isaiah 53. In his “divine appointment” with a government official from Ethiopia, who just “happened” to be reading the prophet Isaiah as he traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, Philip began at the same Scripture (Isaiah 53:7, 8) “and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). The official soon requested baptism and, after being baptized, “went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39). Many believe he is the one who introduced Christianity to Ethiopia.
Augustine believed that Isaiah was not just a prophecy but was also a gospel. Indeed, some have called the book of Isaiah “the fifth gospel.” Surely we can see the terrible suffering, devastating rejection, cruel piercing, amazing silence, atoning death, decent burial, and bodily resurrection of Christ in this chapter. Seven hundred years after Isaiah’s words were written, Jesus of Nazareth, the “man of suffering,” fulfilled all these prophecies concerning himself. How can we make better sense of his sufferings for us?
What Jesus’ Suffering Accomplished
Every suffering that Jesus experienced was for our spiritual and eternal benefit. Notice seven statements in Isaiah 53:4-6. He took up our infirmities. He carried our sorrows. He was pierced for ourtransgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought uspeace was upon him. By his woundswe are healed. The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. Matthew Henry said, “Our sins were the thorns in Christ’s head, the nails in his hands and feet, the spear in his side.”
Why did Jesus have to go through all this suffering? Why was he willing to drink the cup of suffering? As our sinless high priest, Jesus knew that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. The Bible says that Jesus “appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself . . . was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:26, 28). There is a powerful phrase in The Battle Hymn of the Republic that reminds us of his sacrifice: “As he died to make men holy let us live to make men free.” Jesus did die to make us holy. Without holiness, no one can ever see God. Hebrews 13:12 tells us that Jesus “suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” (emphasis added). Each Sunday we remember this great sacrifice when we partake of the cup in Communion: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
His suffering is also the means of bringing us to God. Most of us want to be closer to God. And yet being in the presence of God can be a frightening thing. Moses warned the Israelites not to get too close to the foot of Mt. Sinai lest they see God and perish (Exodus 19:21). But at another mountain, Mt. Calvary, Jesus went to the cross to bring people to God without fear of punishment. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18, emphasis added). None of us could stand in the presence of God on our own. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling” (Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages”).
Showing a Deeper Appreciation for Jesus’ Suffering
Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Conventual Franciscan priest who was prisoner #16770 at Auschwitz. One day a prisoner from Kolbe’s barracks escaped. Ten men were chosen at random to atone for the missing prisoner. One of them cried, “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?” Kolbe stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.” The commandant agreed and Kolbe, on August 14, 1941, after 2 weeks of suffering, died in the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek. The man for whom Kolbe died was eventually liberated from Auschwitz and went home. There, in his back yard, he built a marble monument. The inscription read: “In memory of Maximilian Kolbe. He died in my place.” Every August 14, until he died, Gajowniczek made the pilgrimage to Auschwitz to remember his benefactor.
Jesus knew that he was going to suffer and die. At the Last Supper he said. “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). What amazing love! The least we can do to show a deeper appreciation for the sufferings of Christ is to honor him on the Lord’s Day. The early Christians chose to especially remember Christ’s death and resurrection on the first day of every week (Acts 20:7). Justin Martyr (c. 160, E) wrote, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the county gather together to one place . . . Then, [the Lord’s Supper] is distributed to everyone, and everyone participates in that over which thanks has been given. And a portion of it is sent by the deacons to those who are absent.”
Showing Greater Allegiance to the One Who Suffered
“For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Today many are suffering for Christ. Paul said, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). The great apostle desired to have fellowship in the sufferings of Christ. “I want to know Christ . . . and participation in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Suffering is mentioned 19 times in 1 Peter—more than any other book in the Bible. “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16). “Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (v. 19).
Sam, a Christian inmate in a California prison, wrote to my wife as follows: “I would rather suffer at God’s will than to just go about the day.” How about you?
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri.