The Sovereign LORD has given me his words of wisdom,
so that I know how to comfort the weary.
Morning by morning he wakens me
and opens my understanding to his will.
The Sovereign LORD has spoken to me,
and I have listened.
I have not rebelled or turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me
and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.
I did not hide my face
from mockery and spitting.
Because the Sovereign LORD helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore, I have set my face like a stone,
determined to do his will.
And I know that I will not be put to shame.
He who gives me justice is near.
Who will dare to bring charges against me now?
Where are my accusers?
Let them appear!
See, the Sovereign LORD is on my side!
Who will declare me guilty? (Isaiah 50:4–9 NLT)
Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Admiralty Marshal of the United Kingdom began the practice of using the now-infamous Execution Dock to hang those individuals found guilty of piracy. The dock is located below the low tide line of the River Thames, as this was where the Admiralty’s jurisdiction began. According to Historic UK, “Once dead, the bodies were held in place until three tides had washed over them. The more notorious pirates were then tarred and hung in cages along the Thames estuary to dissuade any other wannabe-trouble makers!”
Leaving the dead bodies for all to see was meant to serve as a warning to any others who might be tempted to follow in their chosen career path. Ancient Rome treated crucifixions in a similar manner. In addition to serving as punishment for the supposed crimes of those being crucified, it was a warning to all others to prevent further lawbreaking. There was a certain kind of shame in being hung along the well-trodden path to town, making the crucified into some kind of joint roadside attraction and warning sign.
We are told in Hebrews 12:2 Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” because he knew the joy on the other side of the crucifixion. Jesus was a willing participant in his own death, knowing the end result would far outstrip his present suffering. As Isaiah describes it in today’s passage, Jesus did not hide his face from mockery and spitting, instead choosing to set it like a stone, determined to do God’s will. In fact, Isaiah’s prophetic description of Jesus is of a man who freely offered his back to those who beat him and his cheeks to those who pulled out his beard.
The author of Hebrews reminds us to hold onto this image of Christ as a willing participant in his own execution. “Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up” (Hebrews 12:3). We are never promised the Christian life would be easy. In fact, we are called to live self-sacrificially (Matthew 16:24) and to consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3), and we are warned that we will suffer persecution because we follow Christ (2 Timothy 3:12) and will be considered fools for seeing power in the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). In the midst of all this, we can find both comfort and strength to continue on, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by looking toward Jesus and his example.