By Scott Grant

Heavenly vision

When Stephen was dragged before the Sanhedrin, he did not shrink from declaring the truth. He was taken to a very dark place, spiritually, surrounded by enemies of God. At the conclusion of his defense, the members of the Sanhedrin were enraged. At that point, in the middle of the darkness, a light shone forth. He was full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven, he saw the glory of God and he saw Jesus at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55). The vision was given to show Stephen that though the earthly court found him guilty, the heavenly court would vindicate him. The members of the Sanhedrin stoned him. But Stephen would take his place with Jesus at the right hand of the Father.

Like Stephen, we will end up in some dark places, some confusing places. We can obey God as he leads us to those places, and trust him there, because we know he will vindicate us, as he vindicated Stephen—as he vindicates the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 50:4-11.

This passage presents the third of Isaiah’s four Servant Songs, in which God’s ideal for Israel is summed up in an individual. In this song, the Servant listens to God, while Israel does not (Isaiah 50:2); the Servant is confident, while Israel is not (Isaiah 49:14); the Servant suffers for being obedient, while Israel suffers for being sinful (Isaiah 50:1); the Servant is vindicated, while Israel is found guilty (Isaiah 50:1)


The obedient servant (50:4-6)

The Servant recognizes that the Lord has given him the "tongue of disciples" so that he speaks as a disciple, as a learner, as one who has been taught. Because of this learning, he has the knowledge necessary to speak effectively. Specifically, he knows how to "sustain the weary one with a word." He knows what those who are weary need to hear so that their faith may be strengthened.

The Lord awakens him morning by morning, demonstrating that this awakening is of first priority and that it happens on an ongoing basis. The reason the Lord awakens his Servant each day is so that he may awaken his ear. With an awakened ear, the Servant is sensitive to the words of the Lord; he listens "as a disciple"—as a learner. The Servant has an effective tongue because he has an open ear.

Having had his ear opened by the Lord to listen to the word of the Lord, the Servant was not disobedient. Evidently, the Lord spoke some hard words to his Servant. The Servant, though his ears were opened by the Lord, could have closed them when he heard the words, but he kept listening. His first act of obedience, then, was to keep listening. His second act of obedience was to move forward in the manner that the Lord asked him to, for he did not "turn back."

He would have every reason for wanting to turn back, however, based on the description of what he encountered. He submitted to agonizing abuse at the hands of his enemies. The Lord gave his Servant the tongue of disciples, but the Servant gives his enemies his back that they might scourge him and he gives them his cheeks that they might ridicule him, plucking out his beard. He did not cover his face from humiliation and spitting but instead accepted the full force of such derision. This kind of experience is one that everyone would turn away from if he could, yet the Servant does not turn back.

Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, knew how to speak to sustain those who were weak in faith. Invariably, people of faith had their faith strengthened, or challenged that it might be strengthened, after Jesus spoke to them. He had different words for each, depending on who they were and what they needed. Although sisters Martha and Mary lost the same brother, he had different words for each (John 11:17-37). He knew how to speak because he knew how to listen. The Lord God awakened him morning by morning; thus we find Jesus leaving in the early morning, while it was still dark, for a lonely place in order to meet with God (Mark 1:35). He stayed awake in the garden while his disciples fell asleep in order that he might hear from the Father (Mark 13:32-44). He "learned obedience" (Hebrews 5:8).

Jesus heard the hard words of the Father, the words that finally led him to the darkest place on earth, a little hill outside Jerusalem. Although he was given ample opportunities to choose another path, he did not turn back, even when hanging on the cross, absorbing the sins of the world and losing the presence of the Father (John 18:11, Matthew 27:38-44, Mark 15:34). He submitted to scourging, humiliation and spitting (Matthew 27:28-31).

Are you weak in faith? Do you sometimes find yourself flagging? Do you sometimes wonder whether the life of faith is worth it? Jesus knows you. He knows your temperament, your tendencies and your circumstances. He knows the words you need to hear when you need to hear them. He knows how to sustain you, the weary one, with a word, opening your heart to the scriptures or to the words of a brother or sister. In obedience to the Father, but with you in mind, he did not turn back, but endured scourging, humiliation, crucifixion.

The Lord God gives us, as servants of the Lord who follow Jesus, the tongue of disciples. But to have a tongue you first need an ear. Surely, the Lord awakens each of us morning by morning. After awakening us, the Lord wants to awaken our ears each day so that we will listen to him. Listening to the Lord each day is of first priority and ongoing priority. We may be hard of hearing, but the Lord keeps working on our hears. Jesus was not disobedient, first of all, in that he listened and kept listening, even though he heard some hard words. If we’re not hearing from God, perhaps it’s that we’re not listening; perhaps we’re not spending time with him; perhaps we’re not asking him to speak to us. Perhaps we don’t want to hear from him because we fear what he might ask us to do or stop doing.

Listening is hard work. Jesus was constantly looking for people who had ears to hear, but he didn’t find many. It’s much easier to fill up your time, and to cover up your anxiety and your loneliness, with activity. It’s much easier to turn on the television than to listen to God. It’s easier to watch a movie than read a book. It’s easier to read a novel than read the Bible. When it comes to listening to God, we want it to be easy listening. We don’t want to have to work to listen. Our entertainment culture has lulled our ears to sleep. We want to be entertained, not instructed. Our ears are asleep, but God wants to awaken them, and he is working to do that every day. That’s why he awakens you day by day.

As you open your ear to listen, you will hear about God’s astounding love for you, and you will probably hear some hard words as well. You will be confronted with truth about your resistance to that love, and you will get the impression that you need to move forward into risky ministry and relational areas that may expose you to possible derision and even humiliation. You may hear more general impressions than specific instructions. Listen and obey. Walk down the path, and do not turn back.

Those who listen and obey, who take some risks and feel some pain, develop the tongue of disciples. In their pain they have cried out to God, and he opens their ears to hear words of comfort. Rejection on earth opens them to comfort from God. They know how to sustain the weary one with a word, because they too have been weary and have been blessed by uplifting words. The Father has comforted them in their affliction that they may comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). They speak with compassion and conviction.


The vindicated servant (50:7-9)

How can the Servant obey and not turn back when the path he is told to walk down is so hard? The Lord "helps" him. Although the Servant exposes himself to humiliation of the worst kind, because of the Lord’s help he nevertheless is not disgraced (the words translated "humiliation" in verse 5 and "disgraced" in verse 7 are related words). Because of the Lord’s help, he has set his face "like flint"—he is resolute in the face of opposition. Because of the Lord’s help, he knows that he will not be ashamed.

How specifically does the Lord help him? The Lord, who he recognizes as near to him, "vindicates" him. This is a courtroom term for a courtroom scene. In verses 7 and 8 the Servant challenges his opponents, with the Lord serving as judge. Those who have struck his back, plucked out his beard and spit on him are invited to present their case. The Servant has no problem inviting his enemies to "draw near" because he knows that the Lord, who is near, will rule in his favor.

His enemies would condemn him, but they will fail. Unlike the Servant, who sets his face like flint, the enemies will "wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them." Their failure will be gradual and almost imperceptible but certain nevertheless. They don’t even have the staying power to present their case, because they come to the knowledge that they have none to present and that the Lord will not vindicate them.

Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, knew that the Lord God would help him; he knew that the Lord God would vindicate him. Therefore, he set his face like flint. He "set his face to go to Jerusalem" and face his accusers (Luke 9:51). He submitted to the authorities who put him on trial and condemned him. Jesus said very little at his trial. The only words Matthew records him as saying are these, spoken to the high priest and the Sanhedrin, in response to the question whether he was the Messiah: "You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matthew 26:64). Those words were enough to condemn him, for he claimed that he was the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14), the representative of the true people of God, and that he would be vindicated by God. The authorities stood up to Jesus in their makeshift courtroom, but they don’t stand a chance in God’s courtroom, the only one that counts, and Jesus knew it.

How is it that we can obey God, putting ourselves forward into risky ministry and relational arenas? How is it that we can endure derision and humiliation? As servants of the Lord, we know that the Lord God helps us; we know that he will vindicate us for following Jesus. God helps those who follow his Son. We can obey, because we know the Judge. We know that we will not be disgraced or ashamed in his courtroom, so we have confidence when we enter the various human "courtrooms" of our lives, when our reputations are on the line. Knowing that we will not be ashamed, we experience deep satisfaction from doing the hard thing, even if it means being misunderstood.

Just after reporting that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, Luke tells us that three people expressed interest in following Jesus, but Jesus told them how hard it would be (Luke 9:57-62):

If Jesus set his face like flint in this way, his followers can expect that they will have to do the same.

Do you have any enemies? Perhaps there are those who would love to see you humiliated for your faithfulness to Jesus. More significantly, you have spiritual enemies who would, so to speak, strike your back, pluck out your beard, humiliate you, spit on you. They would do everything they can, through emotional intimidation, to keep you from following Jesus. As servants of the Lord, we ask, "Who will contend with me? Who is he who condemns me?" Paul, echoing Isaiah, says, "Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is he who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us" (Romans 8:33-34). If God is for us (and he is!) and he helps us and vindicates us (and he does!), it doesn’t matter who is against us (Romans 8:31). We can welcome the examination of the world, even the devil. Why? Because "he who vindicates me is near." If the Lord God is near, it doesn’t matter who else is near and what kind of havoc they’re trying to cause. Those who oppose us because we follow Jesus will all wear out like garments. It may be a gradual, almost imperceptible process, but it is inevitable.

Don’t worry about judgments rendered on earth that would make you feel disgraced, ashamed and condemned. The earthly courtroom is not the one that matters. Rest assured that in the heavenly courtroom, the only one that matters, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). In fact, the earthly and demonic judgments that make us feel condemned can actually liberate us to see the true courtroom and the true Judge. This happens as we grow weary of feelings of shame and condemnation and come to believe that there has to be a different kind of courtroom and a different kind of Judge.

In the person of Jesus, the heavenly Judge came to earth. The earthly prosecutors found an adulterous woman. They disgraced and shamed the woman and deemed her worthy of condemnation and stoning. They brought her to Jesus, hoping to trap him and thereby accuse him. John tells the story (John 8:7-11):

When Jesus turned an earthly courtroom into a heavenly one, the woman’s opponents wore out like a garment. The same will happen with all the opponents of Jesus’ followers.

The trusting servant (50:10-11)

Isaiah now applies the Servant Song to the lives of his hearers. In verse 10, he says what those who fear the Lord should do. In verse 11, he says what those who don’t fear the Lord should do, if they want to be condemned by the Lord God.

Those who fear the Lord are also described as obeying the voice of his Servant and as walking in darkness. The Servant himself was obedient to God (verse 5); now those who fear God are also to be obedient to the voice of the Servant. His words carry the authority of God. The Servant has listened to God and therefore has the tongue of disciples. His voice should be heard, and his words should be obeyed. Wouldn’t those who fear the Lord and obey the Servant of the Lord be walking not in the darkness but in the light? If one obeys the Servant, he will walk as the Servant walked, and he will walk into places of darkness, where nothing makes sense. In such places, he who fears the Lord should "trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God."

Those who don’t fear the Lord also walk in darkness, until they light fires and encircle themselves with firebrands, or torches. Isaiah suggests that, instead of relying on God, they should walk in the light of their fires and carry their torches. His use of sarcasm is designed to cause them to put out their fires and trust in the Lord instead. When those who don’t fear the Lord enter places of darkness, they trust in the fires that they can light, not in God. In the end, though, they will walk neither in darkness nor in light. When the Lord finally renders his verdict, and without him to lean on, they will "lie down in torment."

Whether we fear the Lord or not, we will find ourselves in places of darkness. If we fear the Lord and obey the voice of his Servant, Jesus, we will not only stumble into places of darkness but intentionally walk into them. We will move forward, seeking to serve, seeking to give, seeking to love, even if we don’t know how. We’ll be misunderstood and criticized. The response may not be what we hoped for, but it may be what we feared. We may feel rejection, disgrace, shame, condemnation, humiliation, abandonment, loneliness. We may feel extremely vulnerable. In this place, nothing makes sense, except perhaps the vague sense that we’re in the right place, and that God has asked us to enter it. We cling to this belief because we know we entered this place seeking to follow Jesus in the way of love.

How are we to survive in this place? Isaiah presents us with two options: 1) We can trust in the name of the Lord and rely on our God. 2) We can kindle a fire, encircle ourselves with torches and walk in the light of our own fire. We can rely on our God in the darkness of confusion, or we can try to dispel the darkness of confusion with our own light. By relying on God, we draw close to him, abide by his word and trust that dawn will break. By lighting our own fire, we reject the opportunity to draw near to God, and we devise our own methods to make life more manageable, more quickly. At more extreme levels, this means resorting to deception, manipulation, intimidation and the like. At less extreme levels, it means making the elimination of the confusion a greater goal than drawing near to God.

When Jesus told his disciples to come to Judea with him, his disciples protested, because the Jews tried to stone him the last time he was there (John 10:31). Jesus wanted to risk his life—and bring his disciples with him—in order to raise Lazarus from the dead, although the disciples had trouble understanding this purpose. Jesus told his disciples, "Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him." Jesus asked them to go to a dark place. Finally, Thomas, obeying the voice of the Servant, said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:7-16). Thomas, thinking that he would probably be killed, followed Jesus to Judea, and in moving forward into the darkness, he, along with the rest of the disciples, saw the glory of God when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:4, 40). Dawn broke in spectacular fashion.

Different position

Dawn broke in spectacular fashion for Stephen as well. He saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus at the right hand of God. As noted earlier, Jesus told the members of the Sanhedrin that they would see him at the right hand of God. Stephen, in relaying his vision, is telling the Sanhedrin that Jesus’ words have been fulfilled and that they were tragically mistaken. So the Sanhedrin killed Stephen as well.

Whenever the New Testament mentions the specific position of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, it depicts him as sitting (Matthew 26:34, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2). This image has its origination in Psalm 110:1, where the Lord says to the king of Israel, "Sit at my right hand, until I may your enemies a footstool for your feet." To sit at the right hand of the throne of God was to be seated in a position of authority (Daniel 7:13-14). Yet here is what Stephen says: "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). Stephen sees Jesus not sitting but standing. Jesus, seated on his throne, now becomes the legal advocate of Stephen, so he stands to vindicate him.

Now that’s an image for you! Jesus standing for you! As you seek to obey God as he leads you into confusing places, and as you seek to trust him there, know that Jesus, the Son of Man and the Servant of the Lord, is supporting you. One day you’ll see him as clearly as Stephen did. Jesus will rise from his throne to welcome his servant home.

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Isaiah 50:4-11
13th Message
Scott Grant
June 25, 2000