I will make you as a light for the nations. —Isaiah 49:6
The best way to understand Jesus is to get inside the categories he used to understand himself. He got his self-image not from his family upbringing but from the prophecies of the Old Testament. That means Jesus is not a remote historical figure we have to wonder about; he is knowable, because we can ponder the same Old Testament prophecies that defined Jesus to himself. The one time in the New Testament Jesus told us about his heart, his deepest soul, he said, “I am gentle and lowly at heart” (Matthew 11:29). That sums up the inner life of Jesus, displayed in the Servant Songs of Isaiah. Today we come to the second of the four Servant Songs. And my purpose today is simply that we would look at Jesus. I am not asking anything of you except to look at Jesus, as he is revealed to us in this ancient prophecy. You do not need to go search for him. He is right before you, here in the Bible. You do not need to deserve him. He is displayed before you freely, the way you don’t need to deserve the sunshine to receive it. You do not need to wait for him, but you can have him right now, on the spot, as we go through the passage. You can take him to yourself as he is, without hesitation, without reservations, without fear. He is ready to give himself to you today.
What do we see here? Jesus as our servant-king. He rules us, and he expects us to obey his authority. He also serves us, and he expects us to receive his humility. When Peter hesitated to let Jesus wash his feet, the Lord said, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). Let’s not be above Jesus serving us. Being served by Jesus is how we get Jesus. But one of the amazing things about this Servant Song in Isaiah 49 is how deeply our servant-king struggled at times with feelings of futility. He served and served and served, day after day, and sometimes he wondered if it was working. Do you realize that Jesus was tempted with feelings of failure, just as we are? If you wonder if your life is making a difference, he understands. But he didn’t quit. He kept going, because he trusted the Lord to make his life mission successful. Jesus had to live by faith, too. He didn’t succeed by his own powers. He succeeded by the power of God. He didn’t cheat and draw upon his own divine powers as a shortcut. Jesus submitted to the same ordinariness we live with. Jesus the man needed God, moment by moment, the way we do. And he trusted God better than we do. One of the ways we can trust Jesus is to trust him even for our trust. Jesus had a faith that moved mountains. His life wasn’t easy. But he overcame everything by trusting his Father. That’s our Savior. Let’s look at him together now and admire him for being for us everything we’ve failed to be. Let’s enjoy him as our completely successful Savior. The greatest thing we can do with this passage is not “apply” it to our lives, as we might think of that, but just take in who Jesus is. The Bible says that, as we behold the glory of the Lord, we ourselves are changed into a reflection of his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). So let’s behold the glory of Jesus in this prophecy that meant so much to Jesus himself.
Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
Immediately we know that whoever is speaking here is special. The speaker is not Isaiah. The prophets didn’t say, “Listen to me.” They said, “Thus says the Lord.” So whoever is speaking here is more than a prophet, because he is demanding that the whole world pay attention to him. We know from verse 3 that the speaker is the servant of the Lord. But he is speaking as if he were the Lord. Jesus is our servant-king. When he was transfigured, the Father’s voice from heaven said to the entire world and every one of us, “Listen to him” (Mark 9:7). What does he have to say?
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
When we “receive Christ” – and I hope you have received Christ, because he is so easy to receive, and he gives so much – but when we receive Christ, let’s understand what we are doing and what we are not doing. We are not electing him to office. We are not appointing him to the role of Savior. We are not adding to his existence. As you can see here, it was God who called and named Jesus to be our Savior, even from Mary’s womb. Jesus didn’t promote himself. He knew confidently from the beginning who he was in God’s purpose of grace for this world.
The best thing that has ever happened in human history did not come from our top people getting together and figuring things out and voting by committee; the best thing that has ever happened in human history started in a woman’s womb, quietly, with no fanfare, known only to God. The only hope of the world did not begin with us, not even in our yearnings; it began in the heart of God. All we do is receive him. The greatest thing that can happen in your life will not come from within yourself but will reach toward you from what God did 2000 years ago in Jesus. God gave us Jesus. The Bible says that God will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:31). You might love Jesus, or you might hate Jesus, but you cannot change Jesus. You can only receive him. He is who he is by the purpose of God. That’s how grace works.
What then is the role to which Jesus was called by God? He came as God’s secret weapon against everything that dishonors God and oppresses us:
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
We see two metaphors here – a sword and an arrow. A sword is for close-up, hand-to-hand fighting. An arrow is for fighting at a distance. The two metaphors together mean that Jesus is God’s weapon of choice, God’s strategy, for every battle that needs to be fought against everything that’s wrong with this world. We can be thankful that when God declared war, he sent Jesus.
You’ll recall that, two weeks ago, when we studied the first Servant Song, in Isaiah chapter 42, the foil to the servant of the Lord was Cyrus the Great, the Persian warlord who conquered Babylon. Isaiah wants us to see that contrast again here. Cyrus fought with literal swords and arrows. He was just one more imperialist big shot bullying his way onto the world scene. There have been so many like him. But Jesus is the kind of weapon God uses. His mouth is the sword of God in the sense that he judges by his word. And what he judges in us is everything that’s hostile to God and destructive of us. What he judges in us is the hell that would own us forever without his judgment. And he’s good at it. He is a sharp sword and a polished arrow – very able to get past our foolish defenses. The greatest blessing in all our lives is to be pierced with his sword and wounded with his arrows. But that seems crazy to us until we experience it. We don’t naturally want our self-contained personal world to come under attack. It’s unimaginable to us that the defeat of our desires could be a relief and a new beginning. Isaiah says that the Lord’s servant is hidden away in the shadow of God’s hand, because his value is not obvious. It never occurs to us that Jesus is a wonderful defeat. God’s secret strategy is hidden to us. If you have given your trust to Jesus with a whole heart, I understand. You’re wrong. And I hope you’ll dare to trust him fully. But when you do, you’ll be surprised. When you experience defeat under Jesus, you’ll call it “salvation.”
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
Jesus was the perfect Israel. He embodied what historic Israel had failed to be. God had called that nation to serve the world with the gospel. But what they never became Jesus was by nature, and his life proved it. That’s why it says, “Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” This time, in Jesus, the real Israel, God will be glorified. And that word translated “glorified” is not the one so often translated that way. For God to be glorified usually means that God is shown to be weighty and not trivial. But this word here means that God’s beauty will be put on display through Jesus. Do you see God as beautiful? If you stare at Jesus long enough, you will. Open your Bible, read the passages about Jesus, mull them over, and compare. Do you see personal beauty anywhere else like his? Think it through. Look carefully. You will see God in a new way.
If you’re not beautiful – and Israel wasn’t – if you have failed to be the person God called you to be, Jesus is not only the better Israel, he is the better you. If Jesus is the true and better Israel, he is the true and better you as well. Jesus is the substitute for sinners. That’s the heart of the gospel. It means that Jesus is the true and better America. Jesus is the true and better Nashville. When we come to Christ, we get a new, better self. There is no reason why any one of us, and all of us together, can’t go to him now and find in him the perfect record and perfect performance and perfect service we threw away a long time ago. In Jesus, the beauty of God is obvious, the same way God meant you to display his glory. And if you have received Jesus, his record and performance and service count for you, and he becomes your better future. If you have not received Jesus, you can. God has appointed him as the one who glorifies God for sinners in place of their failure. Your failures are not a barrier to your coming; they are your reason to come to him.
But it wasn’t easy for Jesus. He got discouraged, living for us the way we should have lived:
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”
We shouldn’t be surprised at this. Did Jesus run from one success to another? Unlike Cyrus, who for a time could no wrong, one success after another, Jesus was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Not even his disciples understood him. He said, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?” (Matthew 17:17). When the Pharisees argued with him, the Bible says he sighed deeply in his spirit (Mark 8:12). In the end, he even said to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). But unlike historic Israel, and unlike me and you, the setbacks did not drive him to despair and bitterness. He trusted God: “Yet surely my right [that is, the good outcome that should come my way] is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” Do you see? We can trust him that his trust in the Lord was what ours should be. He is a complete Savior. I’m not saying you don’t need to trust him; you do. But I am saying that you can trust him even with your unbelief. Now, that is a complete Savior! No wonder God enlarged his job description:
And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
“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.”
That final line can be translated more literally, “. . . that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth.” Jesus is God’s servant and he is a light for the nations and he is God’s salvation to the end of the earth. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). There is no other. Compared with Jesus, every moral code, every spiritual path, every philosophy – nothing else serves us, everything else is darkness, nothing else sets us free. I say “sets us free” because of this word “salvation.” That English word is, to us, a very religious word. We don’t connect with it. It doesn’t feel relevant. But I notice that the Arabic verb cognate with the Hebrew verb “to save” means “to be spacious, to be capacious, to be open and wide and sufficient and abundant.” And that is exactly what every one of us needs – space and room to grow, relief from pressure, not pressed in with threats of judgment but freedom and room to breathe. If we think of salvation that way, we’ll start to get the hang of it.
Immanuel Church is a place of salvation for sinners, because Jesus is here. He defines the ground rules. After he had raised his friend Lazarus from death, Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44). Only Jesus can raise the dead, but he tells us to unbind them and let them go. That is salvation, and that is what our city needs. That is the ministry the servant of the Lord has given us. And I can prove it. In Acts chapter 13 Paul and Barnabas quote Isaiah 49:6 and apply it to their own ministry. They said to their critics, “Since you thrust the gospel aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:46-47). Even so, the Lord has commanded us to carry on the ministry of Jesus. How? We too are the servants of the Lord. We have no other final reason for living. We too bring the light of the gospel, as we walk in the light. We too unbind people and let them go from everything that holds them back. Breaking loose and running free for Christ – that is his salvation, and that is our ministry. Back in chapter 42 the key word was “justice” – that wonderfully humane world that God intended. Now the key word in chapter 49 is “salvation” – a liberation from everything against us. That is Jesus. He is our open space, to run free for the first time in our lives.
You must know there is a deep prejudice in your heart against God. But that dark feeling is lying to you. If you let it hold you back, it will deprive you of what you yourself long for in your own deepest intentions. So I want you to hear the gospel again. Jesus Christ is liberation, and he can free anyone, to the end of the earth. If you receive him with the empty hands of faith, he will give you space to think and grow and see things in a new way. He will be patient with you. He will forgive you. He will defend you. He will love you. He will correct you, but not by putting you under Sharia law or anything like that. He will correct you by winning your heart, by reasoning with you from the Scriptures, and by showing you his own example, which is beautiful. Every day you trust other saviors, which let you down and make you sad. Everywhere else you turn you have to wonder what the real agenda is. But Jesus declares himself openly and honestly here in Isaiah 49, he offers himself to you, and he has never failed anyone who turned to him in trust and prayed, “Set me free.”