Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Thoughts on Isaiah 53

Yesterday we studied Isaiah 53 with Oxford students, and I was confirmed in my belief that this really is the pinnacle of the Old Testament. A few things really struck me.

The first one was that you couldn't make this stuff up. It's just obscure enough that nobody could have looked at this chapter and made up a messiah-myth to match it; but it's clear enough that we can look back from our side of the cross and resurrection and see that it is a beautiful description of Jesus. Brilliant.

The second one was that none of the students we were with could grasp how you could read this chapter and not conclude that Christ bears the punishment due to human sin - that the wrath of God falls on him because he bears our iniquities. Honestly, I could understand how baffled they were - it seems pretty clear to me too, and absolutely glorious. In the apostle Paul's words, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

But the third thing was the thing I wanted to dwell on. Verses 2 and 3 paint a frankly pitiful picture of Christ in his incarnation:

For he grew up before him like a young plant
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Christ came without anything impressive - no great fanfare, no entourage, no obvious glory. In fact, not only was he without the obvious glory of deity, he hardly had the appearance of a man according to the end of chapter 52. There was nothing there to make human beings, who look on the outward appearance, think that this was the Son of God stepped into the world. Christ came not just with humility but with humiliation, because that was the way of the cross, the way in which redemption would be won.

And it makes me wonder. If this is God's modus operandi, why do I see so many Christians who think that if only the church looked more clever/friendly/cool/powerful/miraculous/rational/impressive then surely the world would fall to its knees in worship? Isn't that just the opposite? I wonder why we think this way.

Is it because we have absorbed some of the world's thinking about what works? Perhaps we don't believe that the way of the cross - the way of humiliation - will actually win the world. Perhaps we have bought into the lie of marketing. We have to sell our product, and to do so we have to latch on to those aspects of it that will appeal to our target market. But it is not our product. The gospel is God's "product", and he decides how and when it will be successful. If he decrees the way of the cross, we have to follow it.

I suspect, though, that our motivation is more self-interested than that. The way of the cross - the way of humiliation - is not comfortable for us. If we don't have the cleverest arguments, if we're not the coolest, if our church looks powerless... Well, all that reflects badly on us, and we'd hate to have people think that we were stupid, uncool, unimpressive. And so I hang on to my respectability rather than follow Jesus.

I wonder whether blessing is often withheld from us because we think we know what is best for the gospel and the church, and we follow our way instead of the way of the cross, sticking up for ourselves rather than being humiliated, proclaiming our own rationality rather than accepting the foolishness of the message preached. I wonder what God might do through us if we - if I - would only accept the way of the cross.

The old hymn says: It is the way the Master trod: should not the servant tread it still?


  1. Absolutely.

    This isn't a particularly profound comment, but one particular irritation for me in Oxford is this emphasis on having clever arguments. We (rightly) want people to be convinced of the truth of the gospel, but we lack confidence in the message of the cross because it appears weak and foolish and so rather than simply preaching the Bible we instead go for apologetics and impressive sounding arguments.

    We forget that "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong."

    Interestingly, it's less of a problem in Cambridge. I wonder why?

  2. Hmm...

    Well, having spent some time in Cambridge working with the CICCU, I would say they have a different problem - perhaps the precise opposite. There, I detected a rigid (perhaps slightly wooden) adherence to the Biblical texts as texts which often failed to engage with non-Christian students. I particularly struggled with the idea, prevalent in CICCU a few years ago, that if you weren't doing expository preaching you weren't doing proper evangelism. That seems to me to run against the example of the apostle Paul in Acts. A strength of Oxford, on the other hand, is the desire to engage with the culture around us - to find 'points of contact'. I'd hate to see that lost.

    What I'm arguing for is a different way of understanding that engagement - not argument-winning or impressing, but serving the world by serving the gospel message in all its apparent foolishness. I may write something further about what I think that would look like in practice...

  3. Obviously you'd know a lot more about happenings in Cambridge than my admittedly superficial perception.

    My impression, though, is that they are at least to be commended for their apparently great confidence in Scripture, that when it's expounded, God's voice is heard and that this is the means God uses to bring people to new birth. Even if they do have to work harder at getting it across as well as getting it right.

    I look forward to reading about your vision of the future...