I had the privilege of preaching Isaiah 50 on a weekend away not long ago. It contains the third of the servant songs, and what particularly struck me was the way in which the Servant describes himself.
In verse 4, the Servant says “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary”. Interestingly, the Hebrew word that is translated here as ‘those who are taught’ is translated as ‘disciples’ in Isaiah 8:16. What should we make of this observation? The Servant is describing himself as a disciple. In fact, as we read on in Isaiah 50, we realize he is the disciple. Day by day he listens to the word of God—actually, you need to hear how the Servant puts it:
“Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (v. 4).
But not only does he listen, he obeys, regardless of the cost (vv. 5-6). And having listened to the Word and obeyed, the servant disciple is not only helped by the Lord, but is vindicated. Once we hear Jesus explain in the gospels that he is the Servant, we see all the connections—Jesus, who was steeped in the Scriptures; Jesus, who was obedient even to death on a cross; Jesus, who was vindicated by the Father by his resurrection.
But look what Isaiah does right after this servant song. As is his practice after each song, here he provides a ‘tail piece’ (as Alec Motyer calls it) as commentary on the song. Isaiah says this song demands a response. There are (surprise, surprise!) two ways to live. You can go the DIY route of spiritual self-sufficiency and reject God—that route has only one destination, and it is torment. But to respond appropriately to the song is to fear the Lord. What does fearing the Lord look like? It means to obey the servant who is the disciple, walking in faith even as you walk in darkness. So Isaiah 50 seems to be telling us that the disciple listens to and obeys the Lord, and his disciples listen to and obey the disciple. Sounds something like Isaiah’s version of the Great Commission.
I still had a question of the passage however. The disciple listens, obeys and is also vindicated. The disciples of the disciple are to listen and obey. But is there any vindication for them? It’s clear, as I mentioned, that going the self-sufficient route leads to condemnation. But what is the end game for those who listen and obey? The sobering truth is that in my life I very often have not listened, but have been deaf to God’s word, just like the idols of which Isaiah writes so much. And I have been rebellious, in contrast to the servant disciple (v. 5). I deserve condemnation, not vindication.
But here is my favourite discovery that I made while preparing my sermon. First look at Isaiah 50:8:
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
In Romans 8, Paul appears to be drawing from here. In this part of his letter, Paul, having just reminded us of God’s utter commitment to his people in the verses leading up to verse 33, then writes this:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Rom 8:33-34)
What good news! There is vindication for the elect, but not on the basis of their own record. Their own record condemns. Rather, it is all because of the record of Jesus—the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus. The vindication of the disciple is the vindication of his disciples.
As I hold Isaiah 50 and Romans 8 together, the picture of Christian discipleship that emerges is not just one of disciples following or imitating the disciple. This is way beyond mere mentoring or training! This discipleship begins by us placing our confidence first and foremost in what the disciple has done on our behalf. The disciple of Isaiah 50 is the substitute servant of Isaiah 53. His first act of discipleship is calling on us to trust in what he has done on our behalf. As we trust in what Jesus achieved through his death and resurrection, we are freed from condemnation and thus vindicated. His record is granted to us as our record. Just as no adversary could dispute the vindication of the servant disciple in Isaiah 50, so now no adversary can dispute the vindication of his disciples, as proclaimed by Paul in Romans 8.
This wonderful security in Christ is what fuels our motivation to listen, trust and obey as the disciple’s disciple.