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(Published in The Greek Australian VEMA, April 2005)

Jesus Christ: The Suffering Servant

During Holy Week the Orthodox Church reads many prophecies from the Old Testament. In
particular on Good Friday a text is read from Isaiah (Is 52:13-53:12) which relates to God's
servant who will undergo nothing but suffering. And yet it will be through this suffering that
this righteous and Suffering Servant of God will accomplish God's saving mission. The
Eastern Orthodox tradition claims that this prophecy was fulfilled by the person of Jesus
Christ who suffered unto death as the "Suffering Servant" of God in order to bestow life to the
entire world.

For this reason, as Holy Week and Easter is fast approaching it would be good to reflect on
Jesus as the Suffering Servant.

Introductory Remarks
In many verses of the New Testament Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is depicted
as the 'Suffering Servant' of God. In fact it is especially those passages which record
the impending Passion of Christ that have Jesus' person and mission referred to in
terms of God's 'Suffering Servant'. Used by Jesus Himself in order to describe His
saving and messianic mission, this title finds its source in the 'Suffering Servant'
prophecies as they are expressed in the book of Isaiah. Indeed on several occasions,
one finds Isaiah's 'servant' passages directly quoted by New Testament writers in
order to describe central ideas about Jesus' person and mission. Therefore in order
to understand what was meant by Jesus as the 'Suffering Servant' it is necessary to
examine the prophecies of Isaiah to see in what ways Jesus fulfilled what was
alluded to by the prophet over 700 years before Christ's birth. That is, it is only Jesus
Christ who sheds light fully on the meaning of these prophetic writings, thereby
highlighting their abundantly rich and theologically suggestive character. And yet it is
the prophecies read in the light of Jesus Christ which can illumine the meaning of
Jesus as the 'Suffering Servant' of God and it is to these that we now turn.

The Prophet Isaiah


Writing over seven hundred years before the coming of Christ, the prophet
Isaiah1 was able to predict the coming of the Messiah because it was God who had
revealed to him His future coming. One cannot but be astounded at the remarkable
way that Isaiah was elected by God to this prophetic mission: God is revealed to him;
Isaiah is utterly perplexed at the tremendous vision; he confesses his unworthiness
and an angel is described as touching his lips with a burning coal in order to cleanse
them.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,

1The Bible depicts the prophet Isaiah beginning his prophetic mission at approximately 740BC after the
death of king Uzziah. It has also been suggested that he died a terrible death being sawn in two by
Manassseh (cf Heb 11:37). After 701BC Isaiah disappears from the scene without a trace.

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high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs
were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they
covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with
two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy
is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” … And I
said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean … Then one
of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken
from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth
with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt
has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (Is 6:1-7).
Following God's call it would be quite safe to say that Israel produced few other
figures as great in stature as the prophet Isaiah. We know that after being called to
his prophetic office, Isaiah engaged in the events of his time many ways guiding the
nation of Israel through times of tragedy and crisis.

Isaiah's Suffering Servant Poems


Biblical scholars have usually identified four particular passages from the book
of Isaiah which tell of the Lord as the Suffering Servant – these are, what is
traditionally called the poems of Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12.
Filled with powerful images and striking descriptions these passages boldly and
imaginatively tell the story of God's Suffering Servant. The first of these, Isaiah 42:1-
4 portrays God's beloved chosen servant as the decisive figure who acted on God's
behalf to bring justice to the world. In the Old Testament justice was understood in
terms of social equity where the weak, the vulnerable, the orphans and widows could
enjoy a life of dignity, security and well-being. Being entirely obedient to God's
purposes and commands, this servant of God, Isaiah describes, as anointed with
God's spirit, one in whom God would totally delight:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul
delights; I have put my spirit upon him (Is 42:1).
One can easily see why the early Christian tradition identified this servant of God with
the anticipated Messiah, Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of God's justice and salvation.

The second articulation of servanthood, found in Isaiah 49:1-6 exemplifies


even more clearly the reason why the Eastern Orthodox tradition has identified
Isaiah's Suffering Servant with Jesus Christ. Whereas the first passage had God
referring to his chosen servant, this passage has the Suffering Servant himself
addressing the people of God:
The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s
womb he named me… And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified…. I will give you as a light to the
nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is

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49:1-6).
In announcing that he, as God's 'Suffering Servant' was chosen even before he was
born betrays that God would be with him as he brought God's plan to its ultimate end
for the salvation of the people and the glorification of God. Therefore the self-
affirmation of the servant of God coupled with God's declaration reveal that the
'servant' of God was not only identified with God but was God's agent for His
purposes of deliverance and in this way is 'a light to the nations'. The passage is
even more powerful in that the servant knows that his labour will be in vain and his
strength will be spent for nothing and in vanity (cf Is 49:4) and yet the suffering will
not discourage the servant's resolve to do the work of God. Therefore, if identified
with Jesus Christ, as the Eastern Orthodox tradition has done so, the anticipated
servant would come into the world in order to suffer willingly.

The third passage, Is 50:4-9 makes explicit the role of the Suffering Servant
of God as the one who would lead the people of Israel out of exile and back to the
Father's home. He could do this because the 'Lord God' had given him "the tongue
of a teacher" (Is 50:4), and therefore could claim to be a genuine spokesperson of
God, whose words could sustain the weary ones. That he was the faithful servant of
God is further outlined in the next verse where Isaiah reveals that the Suffering
Servant of God would both listen and obey the Lord God even in the face of
scourging and mocking:
The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did
not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my
cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting (Is 50:5-6).
The extent of the servant's attentiveness to the will of God necessarily means
affliction, hostile opposition from the world, and ultimately death to which the
Suffering Servant remains uncompromisingly committed and steadfast. Yet the
Suffering Servant's willingness to suffer abuse is equalled with God's steadfast action
to help and ultimately vindicate him. Again this passage was interpreted by the early
Christian Church as a prophecy fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

The last of the four poems under study from Isaiah, (Is 52:13-53:12) affirms
that in suffering, would the servant of God be glorified, exalted and lifted up. The
image of the honoured servant is made even more powerful by the extensive
description of suffering and humiliation presented in these verses which signify that
the glory of God's servant is to be situated in his suffering. It is precisely for this
reason that, during His Passion, Christ is depicted as a bridegroom by the Eastern
Orthodox Church. Whereas the image of a bridegroom is naturally identified with the
glorious crowning of a man's life, in the case of Christ it is associated with his
suffering to show precisely that it is through suffering that Jesus Christ is glorified.
Read in the light of Jesus Christ Isaiah 53 typologically describes Christ's earthly life

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from his birth to his death and resurrection. In a stunning affirmation of the entire
salvific work of the servant, we read:
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,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was
despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted
with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he
was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne
our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him
stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded
for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was
the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are
healed… and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is
53:2-6).
Not only is the suffering of God's servant disclosed at length but also the reasons for
this suffering are also presented – that the entire sin of the world was laid upon him
for our deliverance. This is further intensified in that verse 4 contrasts how the
miraculous events of salvation came from a person whom the people of Israel had
disregarded and dismissed. Furthermore the intensity of his suffering is heightened in
that verse 5 states that in taking on of the sins of Israel the servant was 'wounded',
'crushed' and 'bruised', yet in this, were the faithful healed. Therefore the suffering of
the One made healing possible for the entire world which had gone astray like foolish
and recalcitrant sheep.

The indescribable astonishment continues in that not only is the righteous


Servant utterly rejected, unjustifiably put to death and buried with the wicked, but in
all this, he issues no protest, nor does he present any defence choosing, on his part
to remain silent:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his
mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that
before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Is 53:7).
The image of a lamb is so poignant in that this animal is known not only for its
innocence, purity and gentleness, but also for its silent, submissive and accepting
stance in the face of any type of opposition. As if this were not enough, the poem
continues by stating that "it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain" (Is
53:10). And yet this passage, which at first sight seems so harsh can only be
understood in light of what follows. Through the death of the Suffering Servant the
will of God would come to prosper in that His servant would be exalted and together
with him the entire world. That is, it is this ultimate sacrifice of the Suffering Servant
which puts an end, once and for all, to the tyranny of death. One cannot but see the
parallels between Isaiah's prophecy and the New Testament description of Jesus,
especially Philippians:

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[Jesus Christ] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being
born in human likeness. And being found in human form, humbled
himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on
a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the
name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every
knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and
every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory
of God the Father. (Phil 2:7-11).
We now turn our attention to see all those events in the Gospels which refer to the
sufferings of Jesus of which Isaiah spoke.

Jesus Christ: the fulfilment of the 'Suffering Servant' prophecies


Throughout His life, the New Testament records several episodes which refer
to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God. They include 1) His Baptism, 2) the
Temptation of Jesus Christ, 3) His rejection at Nazareth, 4) first prediction of
His suffering, 5) Jesus' Transfiguration and second prediction about suffering
and 6) Jesus' third prediction of suffering on His way to Jerusalem. The six
episodes make it abundantly clear that it would be in the person of Jesus Christ, the
Suffering Servant about whom Isaiah had foretold, that these prophecies would be
fulfilled. And it is to these six episodes that we now turn briefly.

Already from His baptism in the Jordan River by St John the Forerunner, is
the suffering of Jesus Christ disclosed. The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the
sacrificial lamb who in His baptism would begin His ministry to take away the sins of
the world by suffering and ultimately dying for his people: "Here is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29). Clearly the baptism of Jesus
therefore points to His suffering and death on the cross. Immediately following His
baptism, Jesus' temptation are attempts, by Satan to take away His sufferings for
the salvation of the world. In overcoming the devil, Jesus remained obedient to His
Father's will and in this way expressed His unwavering commitment to suffer on
behalf of the world. The Gospel of Luke ends this episode with a clear statement that
Jesus would have to confront many other temptations: "When the devil had
finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time" (Lk 4:13).
Therefore whilst the baptism of the Lord refers to His impending suffering, the
temptation for forty days in the wilderness emphasise Jesus' willingness to suffer, so
as to break the world's bonds with the evil one.

The Gospels claim that after Jesus was tempted for forty days, He began to
preach in Galilee and then in Nazareth, the city in which He was brought up (cf Lk
4:16). As was the custom on the Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue and
began to read from the book of Isaiah (ch.61) which spoke of God's Suffering
Servant who was authorized to carry out God's salvific mission by preaching the

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'good news' and performing many miracles to His people. Upon reading this, Jesus
said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:21). After
momentarily admiring Jesus, those who had listened to Him, then turned to disbelief
asking "is not this Joseph's son" (Lk 4:22) and then became hostile towards Him.
For this reason, He left Nazareth and went to other towns performing many miracles
and healings. And then as Jesus came to the town of Caesarea Philippi, He asked
His disciples: "who do you say that I am?" (Lk 9:20). After Peter's confession of
faith that Jesus was the Messiah, God's Son, Jesus, for the first time made His first
prediction about His imminent suffering: "The Son of Man must undergo great
suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be
killed, and on the third day be raised" (Lk 9:22). So important is the suffering of
Jesus, since, in this will the world be set free, that when Peter attempted to question
Him on this, Jesus replied "Get behind me Satan" (Mt 16:23). Clearly Jesus
understood His person and mission in terms of the Suffering Servant of God
described in Isaiah and so after this He began to teach His disciples about His future
suffering in the hands of the Jewish elders, the chief priests and the scribes (or
Pharisees).

Only after having spoken about His suffering did Jesus transfigure in the
presence of three disciples, Peter, James and John precisely to show that only
through suffering would the glory of God be revealed. However, the transfiguration
also records Jesus' second prediction of His future suffering and death:
"while he [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed,
and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two
men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and
were speaking of his departure (exodon), which he was about to
accomplish at Jerusalem" (Lk 9:30-31).
The reference to Jesus' exodus pointed to His voluntary death which would bring
about the freedom of the people of God from slavery. Immediately after the
Transfiguration, Jesus said that: "Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands" (Mt
17:12). And again after healing the boy with the evil spirit "The Son of Man is going
to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he
will be raised" (Mt 17:22-23). This time the theme of suffering and resurrection is
brought together in a most explicit way.

Lastly, as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he told His disciples that He


would be betrayed, mocked, condemned flogged and turned over to be crucified. (cf
Mt 20:17-19). As the former two predictions regarding the suffering of Jesus, this one
also contains references to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God who would be
condemned not only by the Jewish Sanhedrin but also the Gentiles:
"the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and
scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand

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him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified;
and on the third day he will be raised" (Mt 20:18-19).
Together the three predictions disclosed in great detail the impending suffering and
resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Concluding Remarks
In all six episodes just delineated, the disciples are presented as not
understanding what Jesus meant by all this. Specifically regarding Jesus' three
predictions about His impending death, Kesich has wonderfully noted that, in the
Gospels the three predictions of Jesus' suffering occur within the context of two
miracles where Jesus healed two blind men, one at Bethsaida and the other as He
was leaving Jerico. From this, the author beautifully concluded that Jesus was trying
to make them 'see' that it would be only in fulfilling His role as the Suffering Servant
of God, that He would be exalted and glorified by God.2 It could safely be said that it
was in having seen Jesus described as 'Suffering Servant' that the disciples came to
understand Jesus' death not as defeat, but as His ultimate glory and the basis for the
world's salvation.

Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

2 Cf. Veselin Kesich, The Passion of Christ (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2004), 32.