The Misunderstood Messiah

Isaiah 53:1-3

March 25, 2014 | Ray Pritchard

“Sir, have you ever been here before?”

For 38 years Teddy Kollek served as the mayor of Jerusalem. Enormously popular in his day, he often met with Christian leaders to discuss issues of mutual interest, especially those pertaining to Israel’s security and the prospect of peace in the Middle East. But inevitably questions would arise regarding Jesus and the Jews. Was he or was he not the Messiah of Israel? Many observant Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, everyone will recognize him. On one occasion when Teddy Kollek was asked if Jesus was indeed the Messiah, he crafted a disarmingly simple answer.

He said that when the Messiah comes, a committee of Christians and Jews should form a committee, compose a list of questions, and then seek an audience with the Messiah. At the top of their list should be this question:

“Sir, have you ever been here before?”
(Source: Jerusalem, My Home).

“Sir, have you ever been here before?”

It’s a good line, and one that you might expect a beloved politician to use. It also points out the truth that after all is said and done, this is the whole difference between Jews and Christians.

“Sir, have you ever been here before?”
Christians answer one way.
Jews answer another.

There really is no middle ground. Either Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, or he wasn’t. If he was, how it is that the Jewish people by and large didn’t recognize him when he came 2000 years ago?

Isaiah 53:1-3 tell us that the people misunderstood Jesus when he came. How did that happen? Each verse gives us one part of the answer.

I. They did not believe his message.

“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (v. 1)

It’s a good question.
“Who has believed our message?”
The answer is, almost no one.

Jesus came as the Messiah but Israel wanted nothing to do with him. We know that for a time Jesus had a powerful and growing ministry, especially in Galilee. Thousands flocked to hear him speak and watch him heal the sick. As his reputation grew, the common people heard him gladly. If they did not know who he was, they instinctively knew he was not like the other religious leaders.

We also know that many people followed him for shallow reasons. They thought he would proclaim himself king and lead a revolt against Rome. Or they liked his miracles. Or they admired his courage. Or they were drawn to the beauty of his teaching. But multitudes turned back when confronted with the call to become his followers. So many left that at one point Jesus asked his inner circle, “Will you also go away?” (John 6:67).

Not everyone followed Jesus for the right reasons

By the time Jesus came to Jerusalem for the final time, the nation was deeply divided over him. Even though the common people heard him gladly, they did not know who he was. They liked him, but they did not worship him. To them he was a great teacher and a great miracle-worker, nothing more.

The leaders were a different story.
With few exceptions, they wanted nothing to do with him.
They accused him of being in league with the devil (Matthew 12:22-24).
They hated him so much that they plotted to kill him.
At length they succeeded.

John says it this way: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). You could easily translate “that which was his own” as “his own home.” He came to his own people—the nation of Israel, and they did not receive him.

David said, “He’s coming!”

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that “home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Jesus came “home” to his own people, and they wouldn’t take him in. He came to the people who should have known him best, and they wanted nothing to do with him. They should have known better. They knew he was coming—God had told them over and over again many times in many ways. They had ample warning. Even some pagan astrologers in Persia figured it out when they saw his star in the east (Matthew 2:1-5).

Moses said, “He’s coming.”
David said, “He’s coming.”
Isaiah said, “He’s coming.”
Jeremiah said, “He’s coming.”
Daniel said, “He’s coming.”
Micah said, “He’s coming.”
Zechariah said, “He’s coming.”
Malachi said, “He’s coming.”

Every book, every chapter, every page of the Old Testament testifies to one great truth—”He’s coming.” That’s the theme of the Old Testament—that God would one day send the Messiah to the earth to deliver his people Israel. When Jesus finally arrived, they didn’t believe it. And some of them decided to put him to death.

Think of the long history of Israel. Over and over again they rebelled against God’s law. Time and again they killed the prophets who delivered God’s message. Is it any wonder they crucified the Son of God?

Is it any wonder they crucified the Son of God?

He came to His own people … to the one place where he might be welcomed—to his “hometown” and to “his own family” … and they did not want him. They did not receive him … they did not believe him. Finally, they crucified him.

That rejection continues in large part to this very day.

The next verse explains why the nation misunderstood who Jesus really was.

II. They judged him insignificant.

A. He came from a common background.

“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground” (v. 2).

Jesus was not born in Rome.
He wasn’t even born in Jerusalem.

When God decided to enter the world, he came in a most unlikely way. He came not as a conqueror or a world leader but as a helpless little baby, born in a stable, in the little village of Bethlehem.

Years later his critics dismissed him by asking, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:55)

It wasn’t a compliment.
They meant it as a slur.

These were people from his hometown of Nazareth.
They had seen him grow up.
They knew Mary and Joseph.
They knew his brothers.

Who did Jesus think he was?

It’s hard to escape the box of early labels

In a sense, you could hardly blame the people of Nazareth (a tiny village in Jesus’ day) for reacting as they did. It’s hard for anyone raised in a small town to escape the box of early labels:

“I doubt she’ll ever go to college.”
“He’s never worked a day in his life.”
“Her family is on welfare.”
“I knew he’d never amount to much.”

That’s not fair, but that’s life in small towns. It’s not always negative, but sometimes it is, and when people decide that you come from the wrong side of the tracks, that judgment tends to stay with you forever.

So it was with Jesus.
The people who knew him best (or thought they did) couldn’t take him seriously.
“Where does he get off trying to teach us anything? He’s Joseph’s son.”

“Who does he think he is?”

He was a tender shoot and a root out of dry ground, meaning that he didn’t come from a promising background. The phrase “tender shoot” means he was just a little plant that people look at as if it were a weed. You pull it up and toss it aside. A root out of dry ground is like a plant growing in the arid regions of West Texas. Lots of dust, not much water. A little root pokes its way out of the ground, but it won’t last because there is no water to sustain it.

Jesus wasn’t born to royalty.
He didn’t have a Blue Blood heritage.

Sometimes we look at someone and say, “He’s an average kind of guy.” That’s exactly what the leaders said about Jesus. They didn’t see any reason to take him seriously, so they didn’t. He didn’t come with the usual marks of greatness so the rulers completely misunderstood him and his mission on the earth.

B. He had an ordinary appearance.

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (v. 2b).

For 2000 years people have wondered what Jesus looked like. Artists in every era have painted Jesus as they imagined him to be. Most of those paintings tell us more about the artist than they do about Jesus. Perhaps that is inevitable since the gospel writers tell us nothing at all about Jesus’ physical appearance. We know he was Jewish and that he was raised in the Middle East, and we know he was raised in a workingman’s home. But that doesn’t tell us anything about his height, his weight, the color of his eyes, the color of the hair, or anything about his distinctive features. Sunday School children in North America usually see pictures of a Jesus who is taller than his disciples, with long flowing hair, light skin, and dark brown eyes.

In the movies, Jesus often sounds British.

You can’t have Jesus as a shapeless ghost

I don’t say that to be critical because you have to start somewhere if you’re going to paint a picture or make a movie. You can’t have Jesus as a shapeless ghost. But it is typically human to move from the known to the unknown. We start with what we know—our own race, our own culture, our own language, our own ideal physical specimen—and from that we craft the unknown. So it is no surprise that in various cultures around the world, Jesus often looks like people within those various cultures.

A Chinese Christ.
A Brazilian Christ.
A Haitian Christ.
A Filipino Christ.
A Norwegian Christ.

In American churches, Jesus often looks very American. Most of us have seem Warner Sallman’s famous painting called Head of Christ. This is what millions of Sunday School children think Jesus really looks like. He has long flowing hair, a nicely trimmed beard, chiseled features, piercing eyes, with a soft glowing light that seems to radiate from his face. The overall effect speaks of reverence, holiness and power, all of it mixed with love and compassion that says to the onlooker, “You can trust me.”

No wonder it has been reproduced more than 500 million times.

I have no quarrel with the way Jesus has been portrayed across the centuries, so long as we all remember that no one knows what he really looked like. Isaiah 53:2 gives us the only meaningful hint.

Evidently he didn’t look like Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ.

Jesus didn’t look very impressive

In most Hollywood productions, Jesus almost always stands out from the crowd. But Isaiah makes the opposite point. The people who rejected him did so precisely because he wasn’t very impressive.

As I wrote those words, I thought about certain Christian leaders I’ve known who had that certain “it” quality that we talk about but can’t easily define. I’m thinking of one man who has done great things leading several Christian ministries. He is handsome and well-spoken, friendly, gracious, and deeply committed to the cause of Christ. He’s the sort of man who commands attention without ever trying to. When he enters the room, heads turn because he has that sort of magnetism about him.

Now having said that, these days you might almost expect me to add a “but,” as if to imply that he is not all he appears to be. But there is no but. As far as I can tell, he is what he appears to be—a gifted man whose walk with the Lord is genuine. He’s the real deal.

What I’m saying is, Jesus was not exactly like that.
He was not a natural head-turner.
He was not a born leader, at least not in the way we normally use that phrase.

Though he was the Son of God, he appeared on the earth as an ordinary man.
Though he came from the majesty of heaven, he hid that majesty behind a workingman’s face.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Charles Wesley captured something of this idea in this line from Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,

The Jews of Jesus’ day missed this, just as many people miss it today. Jesus’ contemporaries had various opinions about our Lord, many of them quite wrong. In this instance they concluded that Jesus simply could not be the Messiah.

He didn’t look the part.

You can be wrong about many things and still go to heaven.
But you can’t be wrong about Jesus and go to heaven.

That’s the tragedy of unbelief then and now.

III. They despised him for his suffering.

A. The people had no use for him.

“He was despised and rejected by men” (v. 3a).

He has always been despised and rejected by men. The world has no use for the Son of God. It happens that I am writing this sermon during the season of Lent, the period of spiritual preparation leading up to Good Friday and Easter. Each day on the Keep Believing website I am posting a devotional based on the names of Christ from an ebook I wrote called Lord of Glory. I am also posting a link on Twitter to each day’s devotional. A few people have starred earlier Tweets from the series (meaning they liked them) and some have been retweeted. But I hadn’t received any pushback until the devotional on Christ as Judge. When I posted a link on Twitter, I included this line:

“If you do not want Jesus as your Savior, you will one day face him as your Judge.”

That provoked some reaction. One person quoted my statement and then wrote, “The dark ages called. They want you back.” Another person wrote several negative Tweets, and then came to the point: “This being the short version of the problem. I don’t believe Jesus or God have the qualification or moral authority to judge.”

“The dark ages called. They want you back.”

The people of the world have no problem with Jesus as the “Great High Priest” (a concept they probably don’t understand) or “Prince of Peace” (which sounds good to almost everyone), but they have great issues with Jesus as the Judge before whom they will one day stand.

“Who does he think he is?”
“He’s not qualified to judge me.”

Which is pretty much what people said 2000 years ago.

People can handle a meek Jesus who knows his limits and makes no hard demands or extravagant claims. But they cannot reckon with a Christ who is both Savior and Judge.

B. His whole life was marked by suffering.

“A man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (v. 3b).

Did you know that the Bible never tells us that Jesus smiled or laughed? I assume that he did, but the gospels never mention it, perhaps because his whole life was marked by suffering.

When he was born, Herod tried to kill him. When he began his ministry, the people in his hometown took offense at him (Mark 6:3). In the closing hours of his life, he was betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter. His sufferings did not begin on the cross, but it was his suffering that led him to the cross.

It is said that Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century first penned the words to the hymn O Sacred Head Now Wounded. The second verse speaks to the issue of our sin and the death of Christ:

What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on me with thy favor, and grant to me thy grace.

Mine, mine was the transgression

That verse captures the whole problem of the human race—”mine, mine was the transgression.” We’ve done well in that department, haven’t we? Our sins have cut us off from God so we are left to our own feeble devices. Most of us think of ourselves as pretty good people, or at least we’re not as bad as the fellow next door. And it’s true—we haven’t done every terrible thing that others have done. But still our hands are not clean. We have cheated. We have lied. We have gossiped. We have falsely accused. We have made excuses. We have cut corners. We have lost our temper. We have mistreated others. When we finally get a glimpse of the cross of Christ, we see how great our sin really is. In the light of Calvary, all our supposed goodness is nothing but filthy rags.

Isaiah 53 contains the good news we all need. He was bruised—for us. He was wounded—for us. He was beaten, betrayed, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified—all for us. Our sins drove Jesus to the cross. But he did not go unwillingly. If our sins drove him there, his love for us kept him there.

C. He wasn’t the right sort of Messiah.

Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (v. 3c).

Twice in verse 3 Isaiah reminds us that people “despised” our Lord. That goes beyond rejection to a kind of settled hatred. They saw his suffering, and reckoned that he could not be the promised Messiah.

“We esteemed him not” means something like, “He’s a nobody to us.” The Hebrew word means to calculate or to reckon something, to add up all the facts and come to a settled conclusion. The Jewish leaders added it all up and decided that Jesus was worth thirty pieces of silver.

“He’s a nobody to us”

So they bribed Judas
Who betrayed Jesus
Who was crucified
By the men who despised him.

Jesus was truly the misunderstood Messiah. His own people misread him completely. They had him in a box labeled “Insignificant Rabbi from Nazareth.” The more he proved he didn’t belong in that box, the more they hated him, counted him a nobody, and ultimately despised him. No wonder they were so rabid to kill him in the end.

He is still misunderstood today.

The greatest mistake is to ignore him as if he doesn’t matter or to think that you can postpone a decision. You can’t wait until his return to casually ask him, “Sir, have you been here before?” We already know the answer to that question. He came to this earth 2000 years ago as the promised Messiah who is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Don’t put Jesus in a man-made box

Do not make the same mistake the Jewish leaders made so long ago.
Do not put Jesus in a man-made box.
Do not demand that he meet your expectations.

Christ has come!
God has revealed his mighty arm of salvation.
Will you believe the report?

Christ has come!
Do not despise him.
Do not say, “He doesn’t matter.”

Christ has come!
Will you bow before him?
Will you open your heart?

Christ has come!
To those who receive him he gives the right to become the children of God.
What will you do with Jesus?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?