Helping God Help Jesus (Isaiah 49:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2)
Do you remember the last time you were working really hard for something and came to a point where you felt like everything you had done was all in vain? Maybe it was a project you spent a lot of time and money on. Maybe it was a relationship you sacrificed a lot to maintain or someone in whom you invested your whole heart. And you get to a point where you start to realize it was all for nothing. Isaiah 49 prophetically speaks of a time when God’s suffering servant - Jesus - would end up feeling like this. But God had a plan to deal with Jesus’ fears that includes us and shows us how important we are in ensuring Jesus’ labor was not in vain.
God’s Discouraged and Despised Servant (Isaiah 49:1-12)
Isaiah 49:1-4 (ESV) — God’s servant “Israel” is speaking here. “1 Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.””
- God’s servant is speaking here. Isaiah 40-66 presents a few different servants of God: This text seems to record a conversation between the Father and his suffering servant whom we know as Jesus. A few hints to this: “The Lord called me from the womb,” (vs. 1) “He made my mouth like a sharp sword,” (vs. 2) and in vs. 5 the servant will say God formed him to “bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him,” (vs. 5).
- God calls Jesus “Israel.” Why? Notice vs. 3 - this is the Israel in whom God will be glorified.
- Israel failed to represent and honor God before the nations.
- He is presenting this servant as the true Israelite who will do what Israel failed to do. The first few chapters of Matthew’s gospel present Jesus’ story as a successful version of Israel’s story to show us Jesus is this true Israelite.
- Yet, notice what Jesus says to the Father in vs. 4: “I’ve labored in vain, I did all this work for nothing.” It’s surprising to hear this characterization of Jesus. But I imagine there could be many points in Jesus’ ministry - before, during, and after his suffering - when he felt this way. But, ultimately, he says he will put this in God’s hands. His recompense is with God.
Notice what Jesus says the Father said to him. Isaiah 49:5–7 (ESV), “5 And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength— 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.””
- God’s servant - Jesus - is concerned his work to bring Israel back will be in vain. But the Father who formed him says he has even greater plans. “Bringing Israel back is too light, I’ll make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”
- Jesus embodied this. “I am the light of the world,” (John 8:12).
- Yet, Jesus says his followers are the light of the world. Furthermore, Paul and Barnabas quote Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:46-47 (ESV). “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’””
- How could Jesus apply this to us? And how could Paul and Barnabas quote a text that clearly spoke of Jesus and say God commanded them to do this?
- Isaiah 53:10 (ESV), “When his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring…” It was always expected that the servant of the Lord would have “offspring.” We often speak of “messianic prophecies” but we often miss that there are prophecies of the messiah’s offspring (us!).
- The singular “servant” in Isaiah 40-53 used 20x, zero references to servants.
- The plural “servants” in Isaiah 54-66 used 11x, zero references to servant.
- After Isaiah speaks of what God’s servant would accomplish, Isaiah primarily focuses on what God’s servants - the servant’s offspring - would do. The offspring of the servant would do what the original servant, the true Israelite did. This is why Paul can say God commanded him. Our goal is to be like Jesus: everything he did and everything the prophets said he would do.
- But remember: Jesus was concerned this would be in vain. Jesus is described in vs. 7 as one “deeply despised” and “abhorred” by the nation.” He’s like the servant of rulers. But God promises to be faithful: kings will bow. So, God gives a vision of how he will help his servant Jesus in vs. 8-12.
Isaiah 49:8–12 (ESV), “8 Thus says the LORD: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, 9 saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; 10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11 And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12 Behold, these shall come from afar, and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.””
- Verse 8a: there will be a time of favor, a day of salvation when God will answer the servant’s distress and make sure his servant’s labor was not in vain by helping him.
- Verses 8b-12: Jesus will be the means to God’s covenant with his people. Jesus will call God’s people who are in prison and in dark places to come out. It is a picture of a new exodus. Just as Israel was released from Egypt, so Israel will be freed from bondage in Babylon, and one day people will be released from their slavery to sin.
- But how would God bring this day of salvation and help his servant accomplish this release of the captives from bondage? Notice how Paul applies Isaiah in 2 Corinthians.
Working with God So His Grace Isn’t in Vain (2 Corinthians 5:11-6:3)
In 2 Corinthians 1-6 Paul is explaining how true servants of Christ act like the true servant himself. Paul puts himself, Timothy, and Titus forward as examples. “We suffer so others can be comforted. We suffer so others can see the life of Christ in us.”
2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2 (ESV), “20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God… 6:1 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” They are Christ’s ambassadors - representatives. God is making an appeal through them: be reconciled to God.
- Remember: Jesus lamented in Isaiah that his labor would be in vain. He suffers and people receive God’s grace through him… but they don’t follow him. They think little of what he did. I can picture Jesus - “It was all in vain!” But God said he would help his servant.
- Paul says in 6:1 he is working with God to appeal to the Corinthians to not receive God’s grace in vain. Now why would Paul do that? 6:2 — because God promised in Isaiah 49:8 that there would be a favorable time when God would listen to and help his servant. Today is that day of salvation when God makes good on his promise through Paul.
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV), “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” and Paul believed God had sent them - the offspring of Jesus, the servants following the servant - to ensure everything Jesus worked and suffered for - to bring God’s grace - wasn’t in vain.
- The offspring of the servant, the servants following the servant, the Israel following the true Israelite - they are the answer to Jesus’ lament. Brothers and sisters, as Paul says to the Gentiles in Galatians 6:16, we are the “Israel of God,” the offspring, the servants. When Jesus was in the world, he was the light (cf. John 9:5), but now we are that light.
Greater Works Than Jesus (John 14:12-14)
These ideas sound very similar to what Jesus said in John 14:12. (ESV) “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus’ has been working to show the world the true light and the Father. His works were great, but now that he is going to the Father, anyone who believes in Jesus will do the same works and even greater works than he did. Working together with the Father, we have been entrusted with the work that ensures all Jesus did wasn’t in vain.
As I sit on that, I am in awe. Who are we for such a task? How can we do this? John 14:13–14 (ESV), “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Through prayer, Jesus says he will do anything so that the Father may be glorified. As we labor with God and strive to do even greater works than Jesus did, we can ask for anything, and he will do it. This is not a blank check to ask God for purple Lamborghini - it is better. It is as Jesus said when he commissioned the apostles to go make disciples - “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20). We do not work alongside the Father, help Jesus, live as a light to the nations, as Israel - priests and representatives of God to the world - we do not do this alone. What does this mean for us?
1. Jesus’ prayer is that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. I am so encouraged when I hear about and see the works some of y’all are doing to do God’s will on earth, to support justice in the world, to show kindness towards the weak, the foreigner, the oppressed, the widow, and the orphan. Just as Jesus felt that his work might be in vain, we are going to feel that some days too.
2. I’m also encouraged when I see you participating in being lights in the world and lights in this church - sounding out the good news, encouraging the fainthearted, shepherding those who are foolish, correcting those who are sinning, raising children to know the Father. There will be times when that is going to feel all in vain. We are going to get stuck.
As we face obstacles doing the work of the Lord - whatever it may be - if we are going to have any success, we must ask our Lord for help! We can ask him for anything. Some days we see serious barriers, serious sins, enemies, and darkness that stands in our way and threatens anything. When we ask for help, let’s not set our sights too low. He says he will do anything for us to bring honor to God name.
When the people of Israel were exiles in Babylon they were poor slaves who had seemingly no control over the future. But people like Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and others started praying that God would overcome the obstacles and bring about the exodus God promised. Do you know God turned the heart of a pagan king to not only release the captives so they could go back to rebuild the temple and walls in Jerusalem, God also gave them favor in every generation they returned so that the foreign nation paid for the temple and walls to be rebuilt. When we call out for help, we are talking to the God who parted seas, stopped the mouths of lions, and raised the dead. Let’s represent God to the world by our good works and by our good news. Let’s work together here and together with God to continue the work of Jesus so everything he did was not in vain. When we get stuck, let’s ask the Lord for help.