A Man of Sorrows

Read: Isaiah 53:3

He could have been called a man of holiness, for he lived a perfect life. He could have been called a man of love, for no one was ever kinder. But the Gospel according to Isaiah calls Jesus “a man of sorrows.” What a name!

Line by line and phrase by phrase in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, the prophet builds up to his description of the suffering servant of the Lord. In the picture which emerges, Christians see clearly the features of Jesus Christ.

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

There would be no outward glory or grandeur about Jesus that would naturally attract the world’s attention and command its admiration.

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

Because he did not reflect their image of greatness or match their expectations of what the Messiah should do, Jesus would be scornfully dismissed by most of his contemporaries.

And now this further phrase is added to his portrait. He was “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” (v. 3).

When God became a man, he became a man of sorrows. He was not one of the carefree folks who laugh and joke their way through life and who never seem to be deeply touched by anything. He was not one of the favored few who somehow miss the various tragedies that produce so much suffering in our lives. No, he was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He knew what it was like to experience pain. He felt the suffering and hurt of a broken heart. It is interesting that the Bible never says Jesus laughed, although I’m sure he did. But it does say that he wept. And it shows him doing it more than once.

A Matter of Biographical Fact

Consider for a moment the sorrows of Christ as a simple biographical fact. Jesus knew the sorrow of loss. He experienced the indescribable pain that comes when those closest to us are taken from us. He felt the agony that hits us when we stand by the grave of a loved one, he knew the sense of rage that fills our hearts at the obscene intrusion of death into the goodness of life. Once, as he stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus was almost overcome with emotion. He trembled—not with fear or with grief only, but more with anger—as he came face to face with our hideous enemy death. Then, the Bible says, Jesus wept, and those watching him remarked to one another, “See how he loved him” (John 11:36). Jesus’ emotions were those of every heart that has felt the sting of death.

Jesus also knew the sorrow of loneliness. While he was on earth, no one ever really understood him, not even his own parents and family or his closest friends. Jesus had no one in whom he could fully confide, no other human being who knew and sympathized with him completely, no one else who was just like him. What is it like when even members of your own family criticize you? How does it feel when even your closest friends turn on you, betray you, or desert you just when you need them most? Jesus knew all these sorrows too.

His disciples, his closest companions, in whom he had invested his whole ministry, failed to understand or even sympathize with him. Even their insight that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, was distorted by their false view of his office and work. On their final journey to Jerusalem, while Jesus was preparing himself for the cross his disciples were arguing about who would get to sit closest to his throne and have the most important posts in the great Jewish empire they thought Jesus was about to establish in Jerusalem. As they huddled together in the Garden of Gethsemane a few nights later, Jesus asked them to sit up with him and watch. He felt the need of one last hour of fellowship and support as he wrestled with his approaching destiny. But they all fell asleep. And then when the crisis struck, one of them betrayed him, another denied him, and all of them deserted him. Yes, he knew the sorrow of loneliness.

And Jesus knew the sorrow of rejection. What happens when the very people you are most trying to help have no use for you? Jesus tasted this sorrow at its bitterest. He came to his own people in saving love, and most of them turned on him. One of the gospel writers tells how, near the end of his earthly life, Jesus’ heart broke as he stood on a hill outside Jerusalem looking down upon the city. “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). He wept not so much for what they were doing to him, as for what their rejection of him would do to them.

To reject the Lord Jesus Christ is to reject the only hope of life, yet that is what many did. It is what many still do today. He came with news of forgiveness and peace with God and a summons to find those things by turning to him in faith. He came to show the love of God and the very nature of God in his own person. He came ultimately to offer himself as a sacrifice to rescue people from sin and death and to bring them eternal life. And they said he was a drunk . . . crazy . . . demon-possessed . . . a blasphemer. They spat upon him, laughed at his agony, taunted him to his face, beat him bloody and finally crucified him. Christ comes today with the same message of salvation, whenever and wherever the truth about him is proclaimed. And people today laugh at him, mock his life and death, use his name only to curse, and pour scorn upon those who believe in him and confess faith in him. “Behold and see,” says the prophet, “if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow” (Lam. 1:12, kjv).

A Matter of Personal Comfort

That Jesus was a man of many sorrows is a matter of simple fact, but it is also much more than that. I can’t tell you how much comfort there is in this historical truth. Think about this: God himself is a man of sorrows. That this should be his name, that this word should sum up his life!

I frankly confess that suffering is often a mystery to me. I do not understand why and when it strikes. Some people seem to be spared most of the pain and sorrow of life. For them the sun is always shining. Life is always springtime, never bleak mid-winter. They live and love and work and play and laugh, and are scarcely touched by trouble or loss. But Jesus was not one of those. He was one of the others, one of the many whose souls are rubbed raw with suffering. When the prophet named him centuries before his birth, he called him “a man of sorrows.” He could have called him a man of eloquence, for no one ever spoke like Jesus did. He could have called him a man of love, for love motivated every deed he ever did, every word he ever uttered. He could have called him a man of holiness, for his life was perfect and pure in every way. But he didn’t. He called him a man of sorrows, “What a name, for the Son of God who came.”

This is a wonderful thing to know about God. The ancient stoics valued one quality more than any other, and strove to achieve it in their own lives. They called it apatheia—“apathy”—which means literally “non-feeling.” Their response to all the suffering of the world was to just block it out, to harden themselves so that it could not touch or move them. Their defense against the pain of life was to try not to care about anything or anyone. But God is not a stoic. He does not value apathy. He is not aloof, remote, unfeeling. Jesus Christ, the God who is also man, has felt what it is to suffer. He feels it still.

What sort of suffering have you known? Have you had the heart-stopping, gut-wrenching pain of an officer at the door or a phone call in the night or a report back from the lab, bearing tidings of death? The man of sorrows is acquainted with that grief. Have you ever experienced the agony of having someone whom you loved and trusted fail you, betray you, reject, desert you? That has happened to Jesus too. He has been broken and bewildered. He too has cried out to God when he felt abandoned.

What a relief it is to know that this is what God is like. It means that whenever sorrow comes to any of us, God both cares and understands. God, the infinite God of the universe, can sympathize with us, because he knows exactly what pain is like. It also means that if your life is suddenly shattered, you don’t have to put on a front and pretend that everything is okay. You don’t have to deny your sorrows, or try to drown them with a flood of alcohol and tranquilizers, or distract yourself from them with feverish activity. God not only accepts our happy praises; he also hears and accepts our laments, our cries, our questions. And he promises that some day, in Christ, they will all be turned into songs of joy.

A Choice to Make

In speaking of Christ’s sorrows, I have said something about what he suffered but not much about why. I’m saving that for later, when Isaiah leads us into the deepest meaning of the suffering of Christ. But as we face now the fact of Jesus’ suffering, each of us is confronted with a decision, a choice between two alternatives. You and I have the option of either adding to Christ’s suffering or sharing in it.

You can turn your back on the love of Christ. You can reject him; in your superior wisdom dismissing his claims, belittling his uniqueness, downplaying, even ridiculing, the need for his sacrificial suffering. If you do that, you will become one of those who, in the New Testament’s words, through your indifference or contempt “crucify afresh the Son of God” (Heb. 6:6).

Or you can join him. You can attach yourself to his person and claim for yourself the benefits of his life and death by committing yourself to him. You can identify with him and with his suffering people throughout the world. You can make it the business of your life, as the apostle Paul said, “to know him and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). Becoming a Christian does not automatically solve all your problems or decrease your pain. On the contrary, it may actually increase your suffering! You may have to feel the same loneliness and rejection that Jesus did. You will certainly feel more sympathetic pain, for the closer you live to Christ, the more you will feel the sufferings of a sin-ravaged world. But you will also know him.

So there is your choice. Add to the sorrows of Jesus Christ or identify with them. Which will it be?

About the Author

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.