By Scott Grant

The appearance of Jesus

Have you every wondered what Jesus looked like? It’s always interesting to look at artist’s interpretations or cinematic versions. For all that the scriptures tell us of Jesus, they don’t tell us what he looked like. We only have one verse that speaks of the physical appearance of Jesus, and all it tells us is what he didn’t look like: "He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to him" (Isaiah 53:2). In other words, his appearance was rather ordinary. That’s all we’re told. It must, then, be an important point. What is the point? This: Jesus became an ordinary person to show ordinary people like us God’s extraordinary love.

Today we come to the second stanza of the Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. In the first stanza Isaiah spoke of the Servant’s "appearance" and "form," which were marred. These words provide a link to the second stanza, where the Servant’s "form" and "appearance" are ordinary. In both stanzas, the Servant of the Lord does not appear to be what the people of Israel expected from their Messiah.

We will continue to examine the Servant Song first to see Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, more clearly and second to see what it means for us as servants of the Lord.


What it takes to believe in the Servant (53:1)

Isaiah writes, "Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Two questions are asked. The questions, though, leave us with more questions—principally, who is asking the questions, whose message is this and what is the answer to the questions. Most likely, the questioner is the prophet speaking as a representative of the believing community. The New Testament treats this verse as if the message is one that is being delivered by the questioner, not one that is coming to the questioner (John 12:38, Romans 10:16).

Who has believed "our" message? According to the rest of the stanza, not even "we" believed our own message. Isaiah is saying that the community that came to believe and proclaim this message didn’t even believe it at first.

The "arm of the Lord" is equivalent to the power of the Lord. The Lord, in his power, acts with his arm, so to speak. It was the Lord’s mighty arm, or hand, that brought the people out of Egypt (Exodus 13:3). Isaiah, when using the term, has the exodus in mind (Isaiah 51:9-10, 63:12). He is anticipating a new exodus. In this case, because of the preceding and ensuing verses, the arm of the Lord is to be identified with the Servant of the Lord. Israel will be in captivity in Babylon, as it was in Egypt, but the Lord in his power will act through his Servant to bring about the return from exile, which is akin to a new exodus. In Isaiah 51:9-10, there was an appeal for the arm of the Lord to take action as in days of old, and here it is.

But, to whom has the arm of the Lord, in the person and work of the Servant, been revealed? The answer is the same as the answer to the first question: no one—at least at first. This question implies that revelation is necessary to believe this message, which otherwise would have gone completely unheeded.

The community that came to believe in Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, didn’t believe at first. None of us believed at first. As we’ll see in the next verse, because of human preconceptions, the message is not an easy one to believe.

Why is it that I believe this message to the point that I no longer doubt its validity? Certainly, if preconceptions are jettisoned and the message is thoroughly examined, it is believable. As necessary as intellectual inquiry is, no one ultimately believes the message solely because it satisfies him or her intellectually. In college I was interested in apologetics. I took a class in it. I found all kinds of reasons for faith: the teleological argument for the existence of God, the ontological argument for the existence of God, etc. Yet they didn’t help me in my faith—at least at the time. My heart, which a few years earlier was warm toward God, had become cold, and no class in apologetics was going to warm it up. Jesus said, "No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44). I believe, and there is a sureness deep in my being, because the Lord softened my heart and opened my eyes so that I could see his arm—so that I could see Jesus. I saw that God in Jesus rolled up his sleeves and went to work for me, and was working for me still.

Perhaps your heart is a little cold today. Perhaps your eyes are closed or half-shut. But perhaps something is stirring in you. Perhaps there is a fresh desire to see something you haven’t seen before. If there’s an inkling in your heart to see Jesus, to see who he really is and what he’s really done and what he’s really doing, that is the work of God. He is revealing his arm to you. And if you’re not feeling any of those things, perhaps you need to confess to God that your heart is cold toward him before it gets any colder—and perhaps you’ll have to walk a few more miles until you’re ready to see the arm of the Lord.

When you see Jesus, you know that you have reached the end of your search, but you also know you have just started to search. Now you know where to look for the answers. You know you need to look into the face of Christ.

Now we who believe, we who have had our eyes opened to see the arm of the Lord, become the messengers. This becomes "our message." Before, it was someone else’s message, and that person carried the message to you. What do you think about that person, or that community that told you the message? My guess is that you’re thankful, that you feel indebted somehow, that at some points you might even get a little emotional when thinking about the messenger or messengers. Now, how would you like to be the messenger? How would you like to be part of a community of messengers? That’s what we are here—a community of messengers. We gather both as a big group and in small groups to worship, which attracts those who are seeking and which inspires us to go out with the message. And as you go out with the message, be patient. Remember, you didn’t believe at first, either. But there are people out there whom God has prepared, whom God is revealing himself to, and he wants you to be the messenger.

In verse 2, the prophet explains why the message proved so difficult to believe.


The ordinary Servant (53:2)

First, in explaining the reason for unbelief, Isaiah compares the Servant to a "tender shoot" and a "root out of parched ground." Then he makes mention of the Servant’s ordinary appearance.

A tender shoot is a suckling on a trunk that sucks life from the tree. That’s how Jesus was viewed—as leading a renegade movement that threatened the Jewish establishment. Parched ground is a place where you don’t expect a root. Jesus came from what was deemed the "parched ground" of Nazareth (John 1:46), Galilee (John 7:52) and a carpenter (Matthew 13:55).

"Shoot" and "root" are messianic terms in Isaiah’s language. Israel, when it is defeated by Babylon, will be like a felled tree whose stump remains, and the stump, the "holy seed," or remnant, ultimately produces Christ (Isaiah 6:13, Romans 1:3, Galatians 3:29). "Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit" (Isaiah 11:1). Jesse was the father of King David, and that line produced the greater king, Jesus, the messianic shoot and branch.

The prophet now turns to the way in which the Servant appeared, carried himself and went about things. Jesus’ bodily form was unimpressive gave no hint of the glory that dwelt within it. The word translated "majesty" is most often applied to kings or God himself in their royal majesty. Jesus, far from endorsing Israel’s nationalist agenda and cherished symbols, as the Messiah would be expected to do, instead condemned them. The closest he got to appearing as a king was when he wore thorns for a crown and carried a reed for a scepter (Matthew 27:29). There was nothing, then, that would cause anyone to immediately "look upon" Jesus as a king, as the Messiah. Nor was there anything about his "appearance" that anyone even found particularly attractive, let alone majestic.

Who would think that the mighty arm of the Lord would be a tender shoot and a root out of parched ground with no kingly appearance? From all appearances, Jesus just didn’t have the credentials.

Jesus was dismissed as the Messiah because he was from an ordinary place and appeared ordinary, which meant that he couldn’t have been the real deal and therefore had to be silenced. Why do people—why do we ourselves—dismiss Jesus today? For the same reasons. He just doesn’t have the credentials. He doesn’t speak in catchy sound bites. He doesn’t appear on "Survivor." He doesn’t offer stock options. He’s sort of invisible. He’s from the parched ground of history, and if, as a tender shoot, he wants any claim on my life, he’s going to get himself cut off. So goes the human heart.

But you have to look beyond the appearance of things to the reason for the appearance. Why did Jesus appear ordinary? Because you think you’re ordinary. Jesus took on ordinary flesh and blood, came from an ordinary place and hung out with ordinary people in order to show you that God loves an ordinary person like you (Hebrews 2:14). When he appeared, he hung out with ordinary folks such as himself, not the high and mighty. He became thoroughly acquainted with ordinary human flesh.

Consider that if something extraordinary happens with the ordinary, it’s worth taking note. If a tender shoot and a root out of parched ground survives and flourishes, something special is happening—perhaps something supernatural. Perhaps the Lord is rolling up his sleeves, baring his arm and doing his work. God blessed the renegade leader from the ordinary place. Jesus grew up "before him"—that is, before God—as a tender shoot and root. That’s why, ultimately, he was successful, though the Jewish leaders attempted to cut off the shoot. God protected him, ensured his success and finally raised him from the dead. Jesus was "rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God" (1 Peter 2:4).

Consider, also, the crucifixion, which "marred" even his ordinary "appearance" (Isaiah 52:14). His disfigured appearance on the cross, as a failed Messiah, was the final and best reason not to believe in the message concerning the arm of the Lord. Jesus was marred on the cross because Israel dismissed him as king. On the other hand, the hand that really matters, Jesus was marred on the cross because he was suffering for our sins (Isaiah 53:5) and God was crowning him king (John 12:22).

As a servant of the Lord, how do you feel about your credentials? What do you think about the way you look? What we’re told, in one way or another, is that the way we look has a lot to do with how valuable we are and how successful we are. No one is completely satisfied with the way he or she looks, and most of us feel that our appearance is ordinary at best. Do you hold yourself back because of the way you look? That’s no excuse. It wasn’t an excuse for Jesus. Do you feel, at the end of the day, that you’re just an ordinary person? That’s no excuse either. The Lord delights in blessing and using ordinary people such as you. The Lord wants to make his mighty arm visible in you. He wants to make his extraordinary love known in and through an ordinary servant such as you.


The suffering Servant (53:3)

Twice in this verse Isaiah says the Servant was "despised." There was nothing about him that would cause anyone to think he was a king. It’s no crime not to be a king. No one is hated because he isn’t a king. You’re only hated if you start talking and acting like a king and you are perceived as a threat by the power structure—if you’re seen as a tender shoot. That’s why Jesus was despised. He was also forsaken. Even his own followers, when they found out what Jesus was all about, abandoned him (John 6:66, Mark 14:50).

In the fourth Servant Song, Isaiah uses several different words for sin, probably to show the different forms it takes and effects it has. The first two of these words are "sorrows" and "grief." The Servant was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." This does not mean that the Servant was a sinner but that sin affected him deeply. The word "sorrow," though used in connection with sin in Isaiah 53, was usually used to convey mental and emotional anguish. He was a "man of sorrows"—to some extent he was characterized by mental and emotional anguish. Because of sin, the Servant suffered mental and emotional anguish. The word "grief," also used here in connection with sin, was usually used to convey illness or weakness. Because of sin, the Servant was "acquainted with grief"—it’s as if he’s had so much experience with illness and weakness that he knows them personally.

Why was the Servant a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Certainly, it has something to do with the way he was treated. If you’re despised, you’re likely to experience sorrow and grief. But if you’re despised and you love the people who despise you, you will grieve for them. The Pharisees despised Jesus, but he was "grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mark 3:5). And somehow, the Servant also bore the griefs and carried the sorrows of others (Isaiah 53:4). That’s just what Jesus did on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24). Sin causes sorrow and grief for the sinner and the victim. In his life, and particularly in his death, Jesus felt that grief and sorrow. And if in the end you feel that you are on the verge of being forsaken by God himself, you might say what Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before he was abandoned by God as he suffered for sins (Mark 15:34): "My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death..." (Mark 14:34).

The Servant was also "like one from whom men hide their face." In other words, he was shunned. In the end, Jesus was a pariah—like a leper. Even his disciples didn’t want to be associated with him, lest they end up on a cross like his. Jesus warned someone who wanted to follow him: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). He knew loneliness.

In the last line of this stanza, Isaiah says once again that the Servant was despised and adds that "we did not esteem him." The word translated "esteem" is an accounting term used in assessing the value of something. The Servant is seen has having no value. Jesus was seen has having no value, even among his own countrymen—especially among his own countrymen: "He came to his own, and those who were his own did not receive him" (John 1:11).

Because Jesus challenged the agendas of the day and offered people a different agenda, he was despised, forsaken, sorrowful, grieving and lonely. He was thought of has having no value. He loved the people so much that he was willing to endure the worst human treatment imaginable in order to offer them a better way. He loved them enough not only to challenge them but to weep for them as they rejected him. When he approached Jerusalem for the final time, he wept over it, saying, "If you had known this day, even you, the things which make for peace!" (Luke 19:41-42).

He loves us so much that he is willing to endure whatever we throw in his face in order to challenge our wrong-headed agendas and offer us a better way. He loves you not only enough to challenge you but to weep for you as you reject him. Now where else do you find such love? When someone rejects us, do we love them enough to weep for them? We’re usually angry with them and weep for ourselves. Jesus is not like that. Jesus won’t give up. He keeps moving toward you. He keeps risking rejection. He keeps weeping for you, because he wants so much more for you.

For us, a servants of the Lord, here comes the hard part. We move out into the world, and we experience some of what Jesus endured. Jesus tells his disciples: "Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20). Have you felt despised and forsaken? Have you felt at times as if your life could be characterized by sorrow? Have you felt as if you know grief a little too well? Have you felt somehow on the outside of things? Have you felt lonely? Has it seemed at times that no one really valued you? Jesus felt all of this. Now, feeling all of this as you have, are you going to get angry and bitter? Are you going to fight back or withdraw? Or are you going to come back loving like the Servant of the Lord? Servants of the Lord endure all manner pain. They feel it, yes. They process it and pray over it. They’re knocked down, yes. But like their master, they get up and come back with more love to give.


Today’s truth

When God reveals Jesus to us, he shows us something we haven’t seen before, or he gives us greater appreciation for something we have already seen. Today’s truth is this: Jesus became an ordinary person to show God’s extraordinary love to ordinary people like us, and he demonstrates his love for us by risking all manner of pain to offer us a better way.

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 53:1-3
16th Message
Scott Grant
October 1, 2000