"As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind." (Isaiah 52:14)
We know this passage very well. This is the beginning of the famous song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. And the New Testament is absolutely clear that the person whom Isaiah describes in this passage is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2:22-24).
Yet have you ever stopped to think about this verse very carefully? It’s interesting that Isaiah would describe Jesus as a man whose “appearance was marred, beyond human semblance,” and whose form “more than that of the children of mankind.”
Jesus was the victim of one of the most horrendous forms of execution known to man. The practice is ancient, dating all the way back to the Persians, the Carthaginians, and the Macedonians. During Alexander the Great’s conquest through Palestine in the fourth century B.C., he crucified hundreds of captives from Phoenicia and Philistia. By the first century A.D., the Romans had adopted the practice and perfected the art of torture, and were proficient at extracting unimaginable pain.
But Jesus certainly wasn’t the first. After all, there were two others hanging on either side who were suffering the same agony as He was. To top it all off, John 19:36 tells us that not one of Jesus’ bones were broken, not something that could be said of the thieves beside Him. So how could it be said that Jesus was marred more than any other man ever when others experienced the same death as He did?
To understand Jesus’ suffering, we have to understand what Jesus came to do. We have to recognize what was happening on that Roman cross that went beyond the suffering He endured. We have to apprehend the cup He bore on our behalf.
Are You Able?
Mark 9 and Matthew 17 record a time when Jesus took three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—up onto a mountain. There, he was transfigured before their eyes. The light was blinding. The voice from heaven deafening. There, for a brief moment, Jesus’ true glory was revealed to these three men, and they were never the same after that. They got a sneak peak of the kingdom to come—Jesus the Messiah, displayed in all His glory, the glory that would mark the kingdom of God, the kingdom that they were hoping and praying He would bring to Israel.
So it’s not surprising that a short time later, James and John approach Jesus with a very specific request:
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mark 10:35-37)
Now, this shouldn’t surprise us in the least. After all, they had seen a preview of His coming glory. Now, they had come to ask that they be allowed to sit in His glory. If we’re honest, we would probably have done the same thing!
But Jesus responds with this simple question:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38)
Now, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice the tense of the verbs Jesus uses—they’re present tense: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink [present tense], or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized [present tense]?” Mark’s words make it clear that the cup and the baptism were something more than future—Jesus was already drinking the cup even before his death.
Contrast this with a similar but different request. In Matthew 20, the mother of these two men approached Jesus asking for her sons to sit in places of prominence in His kingdom:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20-22)
Now, on the surface, her request appears no different than the question posed by her sons. But the devil [no pun intended] is in the details. Notice what’s missing? There’s no mention of glory—only kingdom. You see, James and John and had seen something their mother hadn’t—they had seen Jesus’ glory, and their request was informed by that unforgettable vision. While her eye was on the kingdom, their eyes were on the glory.
Jesus’ words give a similar response—at least on the surface:
Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” (Matthew 20:23).
Once again, pay attention to the tense. His words here are all directed to the future: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink [future tense]?” While Mark speaks of Jesus’ cup as something in the present, here Matthew speaks of it as a future cup he has yet to drink.
Fast-forward in time. It’s the upper room. Judas has already left, on an errand to betray his Lord. Only the believing disciples remain. It’s at this time that Jesus tells his disciples,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” (John 13:31)
These words would have peaked the attention of three of these men. Peter, James, and John would have understood what Jesus meant by the mention of His glory. They had seen it, and it had left an indelible mark on all three of them.
Yet Jesus then tells His disciples,
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ (John 13:33)
What He’s pointing out is that the cup and the baptism which he is experiencing is something which He alone can experience. He alone is able to drink it. They cannot—they are not able. They cannot go with Him because they don’t have the capacity to endure that cup. This is a cup which only the Lord Jesus Christ can drink.
In a final passage, we find Jesus alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is alone, and he is suffering. In fact, there was a battle of the wills going on in this moment. The Son prays desperately that the cup might be taken from Him, but ultimately submits to the will of His Father who has ordained it for Him and Him alone.
Jesus comes out of the garden experience, and enter the soldiers who come to arrest him. At this moment, Peter exhibits the only moment of bravery he’ll have that night. He pulls out a sword and attempts to defend Jesus. To this, Jesus says to Peter,
“Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)
Once again, the tenses say it all. “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me [perfect tense]?” Instead of speaking of the cup as something in the present, or something waiting for him in the future, Jesus talks about it as something that the Father has already given Him. It’s here, and His experience in Gethsemane was a part of that cup. Yet this was before He had even undergone any kind of physical torture.
What Does Forgiveness Cost?
Now, at this point, you may be scratching your head, thinking, “What in the world does this have to do with Isaiah 52:14? But here’s where it all comes together: the cup Jesus drank was not just the physical pain he experienced on the cross. The cup which only Christ could bear was the punishment for sin. He was the lamb of God, and He was bearing the holy wrath of His Father. This was a punishment no man could endure. He would be consumed. Jesus alone had the capacity to endure this penalty and no one else—not James or John or Peter or anyone else. Certainly not you or I.
Why did Isaiah talk about the Suffering Servant as one who was “marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind”? It’s because He endured more than any man in history as He bore the penalty for sin and was exposed to His Father’s wrath. The worst part of Jesus’ punishment was being separated from His Father. The worst part of his torture was being the righteous lamb who was crushed for our unrighteousness.
The great lie of the world—the lie that is embedded in every false religion and false gospel, whether it be a formal religion or secular humanism—is that you are able. It’s not even that forgiveness isn’t complete—it’s that you are capable of participating in that forgiveness.
This is an absolute affront to Christ. He alone was capable of bearing the punishment for sin. No man could do what Jesus did.
So when we pray for forgiveness for our sins, realize just how ignorant we really are about what that forgiveness cost. It was a cost beyond comprehension—beyond our ability to accomplish or even grasp.
We must never, for a moment, believe we affect our forgiveness. And we should be reminded that it was our sin which sent Christ to the cross. The punishment for it was what He struggled to surrender to in Gethsemane. If the perfect Son of God struggled with the reality of bearing the punishment of sin, why in the world would we think we could?