Spoken by Isaiah (a prophet), 700 years before the death of Jesus:
The servant grew up before God – a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look. He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. [Isaiah 53:2-4 MSG]
A few days ago, I was struck with a jarring realisation: I still cannot comprehend the weightiness or understand the capaciousness of God’s grace. We see but a pinhole of a universe within a universe when it comes to God; that’s how little I get it. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, whether you believe him divine or just a nice man who taught some great things, the reality of the sacrifice he made, the absolutely insane reasoning behind his death is something no one can ignore.
Growing up in church my whole life has often left me numb to what I’m struggling to explain to you now. From Sunday School felt-boards to well-intentioned creative reenactments, I was left with a disconnect. I’ve absolutely had reality hits, like when watching The Passion of the Christ, for instance. That moment shocked my senses. But I don’t know that I’ve ever let grace truly shock my heart until recently.
I read Isaiah 53 in the Message version for the first time a few days ago and my world changed. As I poured over the words phrased so brilliantly by Eugene Peterson, my heart became heavy. The scene opens with man who no one thought anything of. Here was this servant of God who was horribly rejected, who was despised by people of his own faith, who was genuinely hated by those he came to love. When it came to his death, he was shown no sympathy from those who he hoped would accept him.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum. But the fact is, it was our pains he carried – our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us. We thought he brought it on himself, that God was punishing him for his own failures. But it was our sins that did that to him, that ripped and tore and crushed him – our sins. [Isaiah 53:5 MSG]
We couldn’t even see how much we needed him. I think this has been another result of taking my faith for granted. Knowing Jesus from a young age left me without the practical understanding that I was inherently desperate for salvation. I’ve made many bad decisions later on in life that have caused me to realise this spiritual deficiency, but I think, in order to understand grace, it’s the one thing we can’t forget.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him. [Isaiah 53:6 MSG]
This simply blows my mind. Jesus, as a man (who I believe was God, but even if you don’t, just let this sink in) realised how naturally horrible humanity was in general. He knew that we would continue to make decisions we’d regret; he knew we would continually hurt people, reject others, hate, forget to love. And yet he decided to make himself a sacrifice that, by his conviction, would alleviate the punishment for those things if we chose to believe.
He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence. Justice miscarried and he was led off…he died without a thought of his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people… [Isaiah 53:7-8 MSG]
He didn’t have to. From my positively narrow human point of view, there was no good reason for him to suffer through all that he did. I don’t care how good of a person you think you are, do you honestly find yourself worthy of someone else dying for you? And yet…
it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain. The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin so that he’d see life come from it – life, life and more life. And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him. Out of that terrible travail of soul, he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it…[Isaiah 53:10-11 MSG]
Knowing that we wouldn’t have to suffer in the consequences of sin was what gave him joy. It is the most selfless act that humanity has ever taken note of. Again, whether you believe Jesus to be divine or not, his motivation was the most selfless thing this world has ever seen or will ever see. This is the bit I still can’t wrap my mind around: why? Why would he do that for me?
I mess up daily. Well, hourly, really. And I’m not just saying that because it sounds all humble and stuff. I can’t, for one second, make myself worth that sacrifice. Oddly enough, that was the whole point. To mess you up even more, all it takes to embrace this forgiveness gift, this payment, if you will, is to do just that: embrace it. Believe that he exchanged your sin for his freedom. Case closed. That’s it. Jesus did it because your freedom was the joy he was looking forward to.
You can’t do anything extra to get it, and you can’t do anything extra to keep it. We live in a world of keeping tabs, of ranking ourselves on a scale of bad to good, and good to greatest. But once you believe, that’s it. Paul, this guy who knew everything about trying to do to gain God’s approval, said it after he had an incredible “Jesus’ grace revelation” of his own:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one can boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV]
There are at least 613 things (and probably hundreds more) we could do to try and be better people, thinking they will make us more righteous in God’s eyes. But doing them makes no difference. Jesus paid one price and it was the full price. He didn’t rock up and make that kind of sacrifice to go 60/40 with us, expecting payment on the rest when we say we “believe.” No, he paid the WHOLE DAMN THING. The words were, “It is finished.”
It makes zero sense, which is why we struggle to accept the concept. But it’s the truth. Today, we remember the most humanly irrational decision ever made on account of a people who would mostly deny or reject the meaning of it. Today, as I remember this sacrifice, as I ask with bewilderment: grace, what have you done!?! I pray that you let this sink in a bit more too. I realise now why people were so keen on telling everyone about this Jesus guy. I think I might actually get it. When someone loves you like that, how can you not.
Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch, because he embraced the company of the lowest. He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many, he took up the cause of all the black sheep. [Isaiah 53:12 MSG]