The Mystery Revealed (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 21)

NOTE: This is part 20 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book here. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

Two thousand years after Jesus, we read Isaiah 53 and see no mystery at all. We immediately blurt out, “Oh, that’s talking about Jesus on the cross.” It’s obvious.

But it wasn’t.

There was no clear, obvious, logical prophecy in the Old Testament proclaiming that the Messiah, the anointed Son of David, Savior and Ruler of the World, would suffer and die. There was no clear, obvious, logical prophecy that said after he suffered and died, he would be raised back to life and ascend into heaven.

There was nothing like the story we tell now, the story we call the gospel—the story lived out by Jesus, the Galilean cousin of John the Baptist.

Yes, it was all there. After all, in the light of Jesus, who could read Isaiah 53 in any other way?

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,
and He carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded Him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him,
and we are healed by His wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
[and the LORD has laid on Him
the iniquity of us all.]

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet He did not open His mouth.
Like a lamb led to the slaughter
and like a sheep silent before her shearers,
He did not open His mouth.
He was taken away because of oppression and judgment;
and who considered His fate?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
He was struck because of my people’s rebellion.
They made His grave with the wicked
and with a rich man at His death,
although He had done no violence
and had not spoken deceitfully.

Yet the LORD was pleased to crush Him severely.
When You make Him a restitution offering,
He will see His seed, He will prolong His days,
and by His hand, the LORD’s pleasure will be accomplished.
He will see it out of His anguish,
and He will be satisfied with His knowledge.

My righteous Servant will justify many,
and He will carry their iniquities.
Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion,
and He will receive the mighty as spoil,
because He submitted Himself to death,
and was counted among the rebels;
yet He bore the sin of many
and interceded for the rebels.

(Isaiah 53:4–12, bracketed text ESV)

But this wasn’t the story people in Jesus’s day thought the Bible was telling. It had never been the story they thought it told. Before the cross and resurrection—who would have ever put this together? Even Paul the Pharisee didn’t see it, assuming the resurrection was a big hoax until the risen Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and knocked him to the ground with the blinding light of his glory.

(I will make you a light to the nations, Isaiah said. I am sending you to the nations, Jesus told Paul—after quite literally blinding him, temporarily, with his light. I am the light of the world.)

So here it is: this was not the story John the Baptist saw.

His faith, formed, informed, and infilled by the content of the Scriptures, had no conception of this story.

John understood suffering. Of course he did. He’d spent his life in the wilderness embracing suffering. He was suffering now. He sent his question to Jesus from a cold, narrow prison cell. He sent his question to Jesus with an axe hanging over his head. “Are you the one, or should we look for another?” Have the sorrows and sufferings of Israel reached their end, or are you just one more in a long line of prophets who will face martyrdom without bringing the kingdom?

Not surprisingly, Daniel had seen a glimpse of all this too. And also not surprisingly, no one had understood it.

Know and understand this …
After those 62 weeks
the Messiah will be cut off
and will have nothing.
The people of the coming prince
will destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The end will come with a flood,
and until the end there will be war;
desolations are decreed.

With all of this background, Jesus’s follow-up to the crowd is all the more poignant.

As these men went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Look, those who wear soft clothes are in kings’ palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is the one it is written about:

Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You;
he will prepare Your way before You.

“I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John; if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. Anyone who has ears should listen!”

(Matthew 11:7–15)

Jesus’s answer was clear. The crowds with their limited understanding would never be able to call the tune properly. God’s prophets, and ultimately God’s Messianic king, would sing a different song. And although these early forerunners of the kingdom appeared to be confronted and even overtaken by violence, even though it looked as though the end had come, appearances would prove deceiving.

In fact, Jesus told the crowds, the kingdom—afflicted and suffering violence—truly was at hand. John truly was Elijah. Prophecy was playing out before their eyes, even though it looked incredibly different from what they had anticipated.

Ultimately, the whole story would hang together. To see it, the people needed only to stay in faith—to remain in his love—long enough to learn how the pieces fit.

To be continued …


This is Part 179 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash




One response to “The Mystery Revealed (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 21)”

  1. […] Part 179: The Mystery Revealed (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 21) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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