God’s Servant Brings Justice to the Nations

God’s Servant Brings Justice to the Nations

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For most Christians, the very mention of the word servanthood sends us quickly into reflecting on how we can position ourselves and our future ministries to better serve a world that is broken and desperately in need. Broadly speaking, that is a good instinct to have. However, I do not think it is the best starting place as we begin to think about servanthood. Indeed, if we go too quickly to the fruits of servanthood—namely, all the things we ought to be doing to serve others—without being grounded properly in the roots of servanthood—the theological foundation of servanthood—we will diminish the scope, depth, and cost of what God is calling us to. Without close attention to the roots of servanthood in a distinctly Christian vision, our work will be diminished by at least two difficulties.

First, we will find it difficult to articulate what makes the church different or unique from organizations like Save the Children, March of Dimes, Oxfam, the European Anti-Poverty Network, or any other secular organization that is also committed to serving those in need. It is somewhat like asking what the difference is between counseling and Christian counseling. Is there some qualitative contribution that is uniquely Christian in how serving others is understood or framed or executed?

Second, we will have a hard time understanding the particular role and voice of the church in servanthood alongside a huge array of Christian organizations committed to servanthood like World Relief, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, and so forth. Even today, more than 90 percent of humanitarian organizations are faith-based, not secular. So, how do we relate to these amazing and effective organizations? After all, Habit for Humanity is a lot better at building houses for the poor than almost any local church would be. World Relief or Bread for the World are a lot better at working with a refugee crisis halfway around the world than almost any local church would be. So, is our role as the church to merely support these effective Christian organizations? Is there a distinctive voice of the church in expressing and embodying servanthood that is theologically anchored and biblically compelling? I believe there is.

To fully explore the theological roots of servanthood, we are going to begin with the Old Testament. The New Testament provides a road map to help Christians understand how we relate to the Old Testament and, obviously, one of the great themes in the New Testament is how Christ fulfills the Old Testament. But the New Testament also develops a surprising theme that was often overlooked in the messianic expectations from the Old Testament; namely, Christ as Servant. Or, to put it even more pointedly, Christ as Suffering Servant. We are accustomed to hearing how Christ is the great Prophet, Priest, and King (Acts 7:37–38; Heb. 4:14–16; Rev. 19:16), but we also need to understand that he is also the great Servant, and the fulfillment of the great call to servanthood, every bit as much as he is the fulfillment of the priesthood or sacrificial system. Indeed, the servanthood of Christ is the theological foundation and root of a biblically grounded understanding of servanthood.

The Servant Songs of Isaiah

There are four messianic passages in Isaiah that have been widely identified as a distinct collection of texts because they highlight a “Servant of Yahweh.” The word Yahweh is the revealed name of God in the Old Testament. Out of respect for this name, almost all modern translations of the Bible avoid using the word Yahweh, but instead, use the word Lord in all caps. It is important that you know the word Yahweh, because this is not just the general word for “God” or “Lord.” It is the revealed personal name for God, derived from the revelation of “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:13–14.

These four poetical passages in Isaiah are called the Servant of Yahweh Songs, or the Servant Songs. These four texts are found in Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–6; 50:1–9; and 52:13–53:12. This section will focus on the first Servant Song found in Isaiah 42:1–9. The four songs as a whole are linked together with four prominent themes. First, the Servant is sent on a mission from Yahweh. Second, the mission involves vicarious suffering (i.e., suffering on behalf of another). Third, although the Servant will suffer and be rejected, he will, in the end, be exalted and vindicated. Finally, his suffering will bring justice, salvation, and blessing to all nations. These four Servant Songs are clearly messianic because the New Testament, as well as the early church, makes the connection to Jesus. Various strands of the Servant Songs are quoted by Matthew, Luke, Paul, Peter, Clement, and Justin Martyr, among others.

In the opening verse of this song (Isa. 42:1a), the theme of servanthood is introduced. Yahweh’s messenger is called his “servant” and his “chosen,” who is the delight of the Lord: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” In the previous chapter, God recalls his covenant with Abraham and his calling forth Israel as his redeemed people. Twice he calls Israel his servant: “But you, Israel, my servant” (Isa. 41:8) and again in verse 9, speaking to Israel: “You are my servant.” Even though God speaks to Israel in the singular, it was generally understood by Jewish writers that these texts were referring to Israel collectively. The people of God are being referred to as a collective single, the corporate servant of God. This is why, even up to the time of Christ, these texts from Isaiah about the Servant were not generally understood as messianic, since they had been recognized as applying to the nation as a whole.

In Isaiah 42, the Servant is particularized and spoken of in more personal, intimate ways which clearly moves us, at least potentially, into the realm of a messianic hope. But it continued to be used as an analogy for the nation as a whole all the way to the time of Christ’s coming. In fact, there is one place in the New Testament where Israel is referred to as the servant of God, and that is found in Mary’s Magnificat: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy” (Luke 1:54).

The Servant in the New Testament

The New Testament writers who were living in the sunrise of Christ’s revelation make the transition and begin to connect these songs to Jesus as specific, individual-focused messianic passages fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They did this not only because of what they were witnessing in Jesus Christ, but, frankly, because Israel had so clearly failed in their mission to embody the servant motif. In the New Testament, the Messiah uniquely embodies what it means to be a Servant of the Lord. This movement from Israel, as the national embodiment of the Servant, to Jesus Christ as the one true Israelite is extremely important in preparing us for what actually unfolds in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

The New Testament recognized that in the coming of Jesus Christ, we encounter one who, in a singular way, truly embodies servanthood and what it means to be the Servant of God alone. The first example of this in found in Matthew’s Gospel where the song from Isaiah 42 is quoted in length and applied directly to Jesus (Matt. 12:18–21). Thus, Jesus as the true, final Servant of God begins to flourish in the preaching of the early church. Jesus fulfills the servanthood theme, which was a kind of messianic surprise that extended the fulfillment of the Old Testament beyond the expected messianic themes.

The early sermons of Peter continue to develop this surprising theme. After Peter heals the man crippled from birth in Acts 3, he refers to Jesus, saying, “the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus” (v. 13 NIV). Later in the same sermon he drives home the global, Gentile mission when he declares: “And in your offspring [referring to Abraham and his descendants] shall all the families of the earth be blessed. God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (vv. 25b–26). Later in chapter 4 after Peter and John are released from prison and go back to the gathered church, they pray a powerful prayer. Part of that prayer mentions how Herod and Pontius Pilate conspired with the Gentiles and the Jews “against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (Acts 4:27). Here again is the messianic language of “anointed one” connected to Christ as the Servant of Yahweh. At the end of that prayer, they ask God to stretch out his hand through his church and perform miraculous signs and wonders “through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (v. 30). Paul refers to Jesus as a servant in Romans 15:8 and, even more important, passes on to us the famous kenosis hymn in Philippians 2, one of the earliest Christian hymns in the New Testament: Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (vv. 6–7).

With these passages found in the New Testament, we are moving into a deeper understanding of the incarnation, God coming to dwell among us as a Servant. We have learned to reconcile Christ as both King from the line of Judah and as priest from the line of Levi, but we have not given as much attention to how Christ also brings together the fulfillment of both King and Servant. This is a key insight that will clarify the questions and tensions that I noted at the outset.

With this background, let’s circle back and look carefully at Matthew 12:15–21, where the Servant of Yahweh from Isaiah is referenced by Matthew and applied to Jesus. Matthew has just mentioned how Jesus has been healing the sick and has now withdrawn to a quiet place and instructed his followers to not tell anyone who he is. Matthew says that this is “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” (v. 17), and quotes the first four of the nine verses of the Servant Song. It is important to note that the selection of these four verses precisely identifies what part of Isaiah’s prophecy Jesus is fulfilling. If the focus of fulfillment was on Jesus coming to heal the sick, then Matthew would have quoted the seventh verse of the Servant Song about opening the eyes of the blind or releasing the captives, but he doesn’t do that. Instead, he focuses on the earlier part of the song which describes the larger mission of Christ as the Servant of Yahweh. This is important because healing the sick is obviously a vitally important fruit of servanthood, but Matthew draws our attention to the root of servanthood (of which healing is a natural overflow). In other words, he focuses not so much on what Christ does as who he is, and in the process clarifies that all that he does is an expression of and outflow of his role as Servant.

Let’s look more carefully at the mission of the Servant as found in Isaiah 42. There are four major affirmations about the Servant that are highlighted in the text:

1. He will be endowed with the Spirit: “I have put my Spirit upon him . . .” (Isa. 42:1).

Here we have a prophetic picture of the Spirit of God descending upon the Servant of God, setting him apart and empowering him for his mission. You cannot read this as a Christian without thinking of Jesus, the one true Israelite, the Servant of God, standing in the Jordan River with the Spirit of God descending upon him to set him apart and anoint him for his redemptive mission in the world. Matthew recorded that scene in Matthew 3:13–17, and clearly references the Isaiah 42 prophesy.

Looking back from the New Testament, one cannot miss the Trinitarian hint in this text. The Father sends his Servant, which we know from Matthew’s Gospel is actually none other than Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. The Father endows him with the Spirit, which we also know from Matthew’s Gospel is God the Holy Spirit. We see here, in retrospect, an early hint of the Trinity.

But notice how the Trinity, which is hinted at here and, more important, developed further in Matthew’s Gospel, is not the Trinity in the way we often talk about it. We mostly speak of the Trinity as a theological framework for understanding the nature of God as triune. However, the way God actually reveals himself to us in the gospel is connected to his mission. God is redemptively acting in the world. The Father sends the Servant; the Servant heals the sick and proclaims justice; the Spirit anoints and empowers. These are active, missional verbs, not static descriptions of being. God is sending, acting, anointing, preaching, healing, rendering justice, and so forth. This is not Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” This is God on the move. He is on the move to bless and redeem the world and to set things right. This is in stark contrast to the gods of the Greco-Roman world. Although they believed their gods were powerful, they were also described regularly as passively inactive. Cicero, for example, described the gods as those who “do nothing and care for nothing” and those who “possess limbs but make no use of those limbs.” The so-called “god of the philosophers” is not the revelation of God in the Gospels!

This is precisely why, in the Wesleyan understanding, we cannot separate theology from practical theology or the doctrine of God from the mission of God. It is also why we do not separate our servanthood from the Servant of God. There should be no awkward separation between God’s person and God’s action. Isaiah 42:1 also says that “he will bring forth justice to the nations.” God reveals himself and his nature in the context of his redemptive mission in the world. In the same way, we as his servants will reveal him as we serve in the world. For us, there is no servanthood separate or disconnected from God’s Servant, Jesus Christ.

Today, we are experiencing a renewed cry for justice in our world. Many very diverse organizations are committed to bringing their understanding of justice to the world. Amnesty International, the ACLU, and the Equal Justice Initiative are examples of organizations that seek to extend justice into the world in ways that may resonate with some aspects of the Christian vision. As Christians, we should be on the forefront of the justice movement, but we should do it in a way that rests solidly on biblical and theological foundations. So, what is our distinctive voice as we join this cry for justice?

First of all, one of our foundational beliefs that eludes the wider society is our affirmation of the image of God that is present in all people. This is the basis of universal dignity. Second, while we appreciate the contextual identities that frame modern understandings of justice, we recognize that the larger group identity of being either “in Adam” or “in Christ” is at the heart of how the biblical vision sees the world. In that sense, justice is directed not only to those who are disenfranchised in an economic or political sense, but to all people who need to hear about the justice of God that comes through the cross of Jesus Christ. Third, the modern framing of justice has been expressed in the context of suspicion, division, and rage, whereas the Christian vision is love, compassion, and extending the shalom of God.

In our text, all the nations of the world are being invited to participate in the salvation and justice that comes through Yahweh’s Servant. There is an inherent humility when we realize that Jesus Christ, the Servant of Yahweh, is the only one who truly embodies justice. Therefore, there is no easy separation of acts of justice from the person who fully embodies justice and is on mission from God to bring justice to the nations. We, of course, will be called to join with the mission of Jesus Christ in the world in a wide variety of ways, but we see justice holistically within the framework of the larger redemptive plan of God. This is the power of the Wesleyan message which does not unduly separate justification from the whole redemptive work of God that is at work to sanctify us and to transform society. This is a deeper, fuller, more biblical view of the meaning of the word salvation. Matthew uses the language of “[making] disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) not simply to make converts of individuals, but to always understand the larger framework of God’s redemptive work, which involves deep personal transformation as well as God’s healing of the whole of creation.

2. The Servant of Yahweh extends the reign and rule of God through humility rather than power (Isa. 42:2–3).

The Servant of Yahweh will “not cry aloud or lift up his voice . . . a bruised reed he will not break,” and yet, in humility he will “faithfully bring forth justice” (vv. 2–3). This is where the kingdom operates in a way that is unintuitive for the world. In the world all influence and change is extended and understood through power dynamics. Economics, political influence, racial theories, global ­alliances—everything is interpreted through the lens of power and the extension of power over others vis-à-vis those who lack power. In the early church, the people of God were mostly powerless and disenfranchised, and yet they were God’s instruments to bring justice and hope to the world. Today, for the first time in many centuries, the gospel is again being brought to the nations primarily from peoples without power.

3. This Servant is a light for the nations (Isa. 42:4).

The Hebrew text of verse 4 says, “the coastlands wait for his law,” but the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the early Christians) translates the passage as “the nations [or Gentiles] wait in hope.” The Greek translation insightfully represents the wider mission and movement of God to send his word to all nations. Using the word for all the Gentile nations (people groups) of the world who are being called to hope points to the Gentile mission as being at the heart of servanthood. Isaiah not only envisions a greater deliverance, but an enlarged covenant with a global reach. Through his Servant, Yahweh will embody and bring “a covenant for the people” because he will be “a light for the [Gentiles] nations” (v. 6).

4. This Servant is the covenant (Isa. 42:6).

This Gentile mission that was opened in verse 4 is explained further and expanded in verse 6b: “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” The NIV translation says, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” We often think of Christ as bringing a new covenant into the world or making a new covenant. However, here Isaiah says that the Servant is the Covenant. Jesus embodies the new covenant.

This is why we proclaim Christ into the world. Our servanthood must have a cruciform presence in the world. Our mission cannot be reduced to various things we do, however noble they may be. The world would love for the church to be reduced to just another humanitarian organization. Many sectors of the church have accepted that our voice in bringing hope and justice is merely horizontal and, frankly, indistinguishable from the world’s service to the poor, the homeless, or those lacking justice. But we must resist the horizontalization of the church. We cannot allow the world to limit us to horizontal movement in serving a hurting world, with the absence of a vertical message of God’s singular inbreaking to establish justice and reconciliation in ways the world can never imagine.

So the great theme of this passage is Jesus Christ, the Servant of God who embodies servanthood. We must see our most basic understanding of servanthood is a call to embody Jesus in the world. All that we do in servanthood flows from the Person who has reconciled all things to himself through sacrificial service to a lost world.

This is an excerpt from The Life of Servanthood: Discipleship in the Pattern of Jesus by Timothy C. Tennent.

In The Life of Servanthood, Timothy C. Tennent gets to the root of what it means to be a servant by laying a foundation through a distinctly Christian voice and vision. Tennent works through the seemingly paradoxical nature of how Christ’s service brings about justice and salvation to the world. Jesus also provides a model which invites God’s people to imitate him, and therefore embody what redemption looks like for the world. With a theological expertise borne out of experience spanning more than thirty years, Tennent teaches readers what makes Christian servanthood unique and why its power endures as a counter-cultural force.

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