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Jesus Christ, Messiah and Prophet

General Audience — February 25, 1987

—    Service to God and people

During the trial before Pilate, on being questioned whether he was a king, Jesus at first denied that he was a king in the earthly and political sense. Then on being asked a second time, he replied: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth" (Jn 18:37). This reply links the royal and priestly mission of the Messiah with the essential characteristic of the prophetic mission. The prophet is called and sent to bear witness to the truth. As a witness to the truth he speaks in God's name. In a certain sense he is the voice of God. Such was the mission of the prophets sent by God to Israel throughout the centuries. It is particularly in the figure of David, king and prophet, that the prophetic characteristic is united to the royal mission.

1.  Service to God and people

The history of the prophets of the Old Testament clearly indicates that the task of proclaiming the truth by speaking in God's name is above all a service. It is a service both in relation to God who gives the mandate, and to the people to whom the prophet presents himself as God's envoy. Consequently the prophetic service is not only eminent and honorable, but also difficult and wearying. The vicissitudes of Jeremiah are an obvious example. He met with resistance, rejection and even persecution, in the measure in which the truth he proclaimed was unwelcome. Jesus himself referred several times to the sufferings undergone by the prophets, and personally experienced them in full measure.

These preliminary references to the ministerial character of the prophetic mission introduce us to the figure of the servant of God (Ebed Yahweh) which is found in Isaiah (precisely in the so-called "Deutero-Isaiah"). The messianic tradition of the old covenant finds a particularly rich and important expression in this figure, in whom the characteristics of prophet especially stand out. The servant of Yahweh unites in himself, in a certain way, the qualities of priest and king as well. The songs of the servant in Isaiah present an Old Testament synthesis on the Messiah, open to future developments. Although written so many centuries before Christ, they serve in a surprising manner to identify his figure, especially as regards the description of the suffering servant of Yahweh. The picture is so accurate and faithful that it would seem to be an account based on the events of Christ's passion.

One must observe that the term "servant," "servant of God," is widely used in the Old Testament. Many eminent personages are called or identified as "God's servants." For example, Abraham (cf. Gen 26:26), Jacob (cf. Gen 32:11), Moses, David, Solomon and the prophets. Sacred Scripture attributes this term even to certain pagan personages who played their part in the history of Israel; for example, Nebuchadnezzer (cf. Jer 25:8-9) and Cyrus (cf. Is 44:26). Finally, the whole of Israel as a people is called "servant of God" (cf. Is 4l:8-9; 42:19; 44:21; 48:20), according to a linguistic usage whose echo we find in the Magnificat where Mary praises God because "he has helped his servant Israel" (Lk 1:54).

Concerning the songs of the servant in Isaiah, we note especially that they do not regard a collective entity, such as a people, but an individual person, whom the prophet distinguishes in a certain way from Israel-sinner: "Behold my servant whom I uphold," we read in the first song, "my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.... He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth..." (Is 42:1-4). "I am the Lord...I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness" (Is 42:6-7).

The second song develops the same thought: "Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away" (Is 49:1-2). "He says 'It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob.... I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth' (Is 49:6). "The Lord God had given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary" (Is 50:4). And again: "So shall he startle many nations, and because of him kings shall stand speechless" (Is 52:15). "The righteous one, my servant, shall make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities" (Is 53:11).

These last texts, from the third and fourth songs, introduce us with striking realism to the figure of the suffering servant, to which we shall return later. All that Isaiah says seems to foretell in a surprising way all that was foretold by the holy old man Simeon at the very beginning of Jesus' life. Simeon greeted Jesus as "a light to enlighten the Gentiles" and at the same time "a sign of contradiction" (cf. Lk 2:32, 34). Already from the Book of Isaiah the figure of the Messiah emerges as a prophet who comes into the world to bear witness to the truth and, precisely because of this truth he will be rejected by his people, becoming by his death a cause of justification for "many."

The songs of the Servant of Yahweh are fully echoed in the New Testament from the beginning of Jesus' messianic activity. The description of the baptism in the Jordan allows one to establish a parallel with the texts of Isaiah. Matthew wrote: "When Jesus was baptized...the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him" (Mt 3:16); in Isaiah it was said: "I put my spirit upon him" (Is 42:1). The evangelist added, "and a voice from heaven said, 'This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased'" (Mt 3:17). In Isaiah God says to the servant, "my chosen, in whom my soul delights" (Is 42:1). John the Baptist pointed out Jesus approaching the Jordan with the words, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29). This exclamation summarizes the third and fourth songs of the suffering servant of Yahweh.

A similar relationship is found in the passage in which Luke recorded the first messianic words spoken by Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth when he read the text of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Lk 4:17-19). These are the words of the first song of the servant of Yahweh (cf. Is 42:1-7; also Is 61:1-2).

If we look at the life and ministry of Jesus, he appears to us as the servant of God, who brings salvation to the people, who heals them, who frees them from their iniquity, and who wishes to win them to himself not by force but by goodness. The Gospel, especially that of Matthew, frequently refers to the Book of Isaiah, whose prophetic announcement is fulfilled in Christ. For example, Matthew narrated that "when it was evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, 'He took our infirmities and bore our diseases'" (Mt 8:16-17; cf. Is 53:4). And in another place: "Many followed him, and he healed them all.... This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 'Behold my servant...'" (Mt 12:15-21). At this point the evangelist quoted a long passage from the first song of the servant of Yahweh.

As in the case of the Gospels, so also the Acts of the Apostles shows that the first generation of Christ's disciples, beginning with the apostles, was profoundly convinced that Jesus fulfilled all that the prophet Isaiah had foretold in his inspired songs: that Jesus is the chosen servant of God (cf. Acts 3:13; 3:26; 4:27; 4:30; 1 Pet 2:22-25), that he fulfills the mission of the servant of Yahweh and brings the new Law, that he is the light of the covenant for all nations (cf. Acts 13:46-47). This same conviction is found later in the Didache, in the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, and in the First Letter of St. Clement of Rome.

One must add an item of great importance: Jesus spoke of himself as a servant, clearly alluding to Isaiah 53, when he said: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45; cf. Mt. 20:28). The same idea is expressed by the washing of the feet of the apostles (cf. Jn 13:3-4, 12-15).

The first song of the servant of Yahweh (cf. Is 42:1-7) underlines the election of the servant and his prophetic mission of liberation, healing and of covenant for all people. Throughout the entire New Testament, besides the passages and allusions to the first song, the greater number of texts refers to the third and fourth songs (cf. Is 50:4-11; Is 52:13-53:12) on the suffering servant. It is the same idea which St. Paul summed up briefly in his Letter to the Philippians when he sang the praises of Christ "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men...he humbled himself and became obedient unto death" (Phil 2:6-8).