This week we will open with another of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs.” Last week we looked at the first of these prophetic messages contained in the first reading from Isaiah 42, and the fourth of the Servant Songs in the study question from Isaiah 53. We will look at the introduction to Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians them move onto the Gospel lesson in which we will see the event when John the Baptist announced the promised Messiah.
Introduction to the First Reading:
The first reading is from Isaiah 49, the second of the Servant Songs in which God the Father addressed the Nation of Israel as a personification of His Servant, and secondly He spoke to His Son the Messiah. As you read, take note of the purposes of the servants, the servant Israel and the Messiah Servant that whom we know as Jesus.
3 And He said to Me, "You are My Servant, Israel, In Whom I will show My glory." 4 But I said, "I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the LORD, And My reward with My God." 5 And now says the LORD, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, To bring Jacob back to Him, in order that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the LORD, And My God is My strength), 6 He says, "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:3-6)
The first purpose of the servants was to restore the Jews to God. The LORD said to His Servant Son that He “formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, To bring Jacob back to Him, in order that Israel might be gathered to Him” (v.5b-ff). Though Israel was the God’s servant (v.3, “My Servant Israel,” this Servant Son was born with the express purpose of restoring the people of God to true communion with Him. Jesus said in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matthew 23:37).
The second purpose of the servants was to be a light to the Gentiles so that “My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v.6d). The mechanism through which the restoration came wasn’t through Israel, but through Jesus. As we will see later in the second reading, the Church temporarily usurped the role of Israel as a light to the nations, a condition which will be restored during the Great Tribulation. Jesus said to His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20b). We see that the Church is yet the third servant of God. In spite of the temporary unbelief of some of the Jews, Israel’s disobedience was used by God to bring light to the Gentiles through the ministry of this third servant, the Church of Jesus Christ. Saint Paul said that, “a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in“ Romans 11:25c). The Church hasn’t replaced Israel, because once God has completed his divine plan through the refining fire of the tribulation period all of Israel will be obedient to Him. Paul said, “[A]nd so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, "THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB" (Romans 11:26).
Introduction to the Second Reading:
The discussion of the Church as the servant of God brings us to the second reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul, a servant of God for the Gentiles (Romans 15:16) brought his message to this ungodly and carnal city of Corinth. The reading is from the opening section of Paul’s first message to them. In this very important message his overall purposes were to deal with some divisions in the church, address some serious moral issues, defend his apostolic authority, and to specifically answer several questions from a letter they sent to him (1 Corinthians 7:1). As you read try to keep in mind the purposes of the servant Paul in the same manner we did in the first reading from the Servant Song in Isaiah.
1 Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:1-3)
Here is some background about Sosthenes mentioned in verse 1. This man, whose name means “safe in strength” and pronounced “sose then ace” was likely the amanuensis who wrote the Book for Paul, meaning the one to whom Paul dictated it through the inspiration of Holy Spirit. It’s likely that this scholar was a man of high standing in the church, and also the converted synagogue ruler who is mentioned in Acts 18:17. If this is the same man then he is the one who likely replaced the former ruler Crispus (Acts 18:8) who also became a believer in the Lord Jesus. Though Sosthenes probably wrote down the Letter, Paul added a greeting “in his own hand” at the end (! Corinthians 16:21).
Just as we did when we studied the Servant Song of Isaiah in the first reading, we will cover the purposes of the servant Paul in the opening of First Corinthians. The first purpose of the servant Paul was to speak to the church with the authority of God. He said he was “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (v. 1a). Later in Chapter 3 he said, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave [opportunity] to each one” (3:5). It’s significant that Paul opened the letter with a statement of authority which stated that his role was ordained by God (v.1a). He made the same statement in the openings of Second Corinthians (2 Corinthians 2:1), Ephesians (Ephesians 1:1), and Colossians (Colossians 1:1). This stamp of authority was very important in order for Paul to be able to speak with God’s power to the Corinthians who were struggling with a variety of difficult issues in their church. In fact there was open immorality in the church with a man who was having a sexual relationship with his stepmother (5:1).
The second purpose of the servant Paul was to affirm the holiness (or sainthood) of all true believers (v.2c). Paul affirmed this in the Letter to the Romans when he said, “to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints” (Romans 1:7). The idea behind the usage of this particular word translated as “saint” from the original is holiness, meaning to be set apart. This means that one should be morally pure or blameless, unique from the ordinary culture that does not view human beings as much different than animals. Some Bible versions have used the word “holy” instead of “saint.” Either way, the people of God are both called to be holy and are affirmed as being holy in Paul’s opening statement. This “already, not yet” call to holy living is echoed throughout the Epistles. Through belief in Jesus the righteousness of God has been imparted to a believer (Romans 3:21-22). However, God calls believers to live righteously on an ongoing basis. Paul said in Romans, “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (Romans 12:1, emphasis added). So we may remark that someone is a “saint” when they display unusual patience or kindness, but truly each child of God is a saint. Let’s live up to this glorious calling in our moment by moment choices, attitudes and lives.
The third purpose of God’s servant Paul was to affirm and call for the unity of the church. Paul said, “with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (2d, emphasis added). Unity in the church was one of Paul’s most important purposes as later in Chapter 1 he launched into this critical topic for the Corinthians. He said, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). He continued, saying, “For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's [people], that there are quarrels among you” (v.11). Later in the Letter Paul explained the importance of unity in the Church. He said, “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (12:12). Then, he extended this analogy to a theoretical conversation between parts of the human body. “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body” (12:15). Since the human body has to be united in order to function, the Church of God must also be unified in their purpose.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
As we move onto the Gospel lesson, keep in mind how Paul spoke with the mind of God when he announced his purposes in the opening of the Letter to the Corinthians. In the opening verse of the lesson today from Saint John Chapter 1, John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest man that ever lived (Matthew 11:11), announced the beginning of the ministry and purpose of Jesus Christ. He also affirmed his authority as one who was appointed as the forerunner and witness of Jesus’ baptism by both water and the Holy Spirit.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is He on behalf of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.' 31 And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water." 32 And John bore witness saying, "I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 33 And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.' 34 And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." (John 1:29-34)
John the Baptist affirmed Jesus’ mission to the world when he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (v.29b). The use of the word picture “Lamb of God” would have alerted those familiar with the sacrificial system the nature of Jesus’ mission. By His death on the cross, He made the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. But we must accept this sacrifice on our behalf for it to save us. Have you recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away your sin?
John announced that although he was baptizing with water (as a sign of the people’s repentance from sin), Jesus would baptize in a different way, with the Holy Spirit of God (v. 33d). This baptism of the Holy Spirit is the gift that Jesus left the Church. Jesus said, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; [that is] the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, [but] you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you (John 14:16-17).
A second purpose of John was that he affirmed his personal humility and faith in God’s announcement concerning the Messiah. He said, “And I did not recognize Him” (v.33a). Does this means that the even the greatest man that ever lived didn’t immediately recognize the Messiah? He certainly knew Jesus as a person, but not as the Messiah, until it was revealed to him explicitly by God through the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the way in which the Holy Spirit would come upon the Promised One. Imagine the life of John the Baptist. From the day he was born, he was told by his parents and then through divine messages from God in the form of the Old Testament Scriptures that he was to be the one that announced the long awaited Messiah. Then when Jesus actually arrived on the scene to begin his public ministry he stated that he didn’t recognize Him as the Messiah until God granted him a divine revelation that this was indeed the One whom he was expecting.
How about us, are willing to humbly admit our inability to see Jesus? Do we trust in God’s word concerning Him, as John the Baptist did? It’s like the little boy Johnny who always wanted to be a fireman, in a region that hadn’t had a fire in hundreds of years. His parents told him he would be a firefighter. His friends told him he would be a firefighter. When he graduated high school, he enrolled in training to be a firefighter. One day the alarm bell rang in the training center and he knew that he was going to see a real fire. When he got there, he said, “Boy, I have never actually seen a fire before, that doesn’t look like a fire.” At that the fire chief said, “Johnny, that’s a fire,” which quickly settled the matter. Johnny may have looked a bit silly in front of his classmates, but he truly spoke what was on his mind. John the Baptist, whose whole short life was dedicated to the express purpose of the forerunner of the Messiah, the one to announce His ministry; was in a similar spot. When he saw Jesus he didn’t recognize Him right away as the Messiah. But, when God spoke the matter was confirmed once and forever.
Let’s be humble like John the Baptist and admit we need eyes to see the reality of the Messiah as we read Scripture and we live our lives. Since God wants to reveal the Messiah, He will help us to see with fresh awareness the glory of Jesus as the Messiah and what a difference He can make in our lives even today.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
1. What about us, what has God raised us up to be watching for? What are the purposes that God has placed upon our hearts as servants of the Lord? Consider taking the following action. Pray right now for God to reveal one or two things, write them down, and reflect upon them this week.
2. If all true Christians are “saints” how does that change your view of your life’s purpose and meaning? How can you live into the identity of being set apart for special use?