[warning long post ahead! For the sake of a continuous thought I cannot break it up into parts]
As we’ve seen, questions and objections have come up regarding the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ that we’ve been studying here recently. A primary objection being made comes from Isaiah 53:4. If you haven’t been following, please go back and read previous posts before reading this one, Survey of the Cross, Substitutionary Atonement: Response 1, Response 2. We cannot adequately deal with verse 4 of Isaiah’s 53rd chapter, unless we maintain the context of what many have come to call the passage of the Suffering Servant, which actually begins at Isaiah 52:13.
Here is the passage:
“13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. 14 As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – 15 so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Isaiah 52:13-15
I want to break here briefly to point out that although Isaiah is the author of this passage, it is the Lord God who is speaking. In the phrase “my servant”, we see the possessive pronoun “my” referring to God the Father, while servant here refers to God the Son. He is calling Jesus His servant. We see this exact same language in Isaiah 42:1 where the Lord again is speaking as He says, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” There can be no question that the voice in either of these passages from Isaiah is the Lord God. However, note how in the beginning of the next chapter, the voice changes back to Isaiah (and the ‘remnant’, .i.e. we/us).
“Who has believed what he has learned from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. Isaiah 53:1-4
Let’s pause here again and review what we’ve just read. In the opening of this chapter, Isaiah is referring first to himself as a prophet commissioned by God who was given a message to deliver, which the people would (did) reject. (see Isaiah 6:8-13) Additional context is provided by the Apostle Paul, as he quotes this same verse in Romans 10:16 in the context of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So we see the connection between the prophets of Isaiah’s day and those who preached the Gospel in Paul’s day. The importance of this really lies as a side note to our discussion, but maintaining biblical context is critical.
In verses 2-3 we see a description or picture painted by Isaiah of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was not born as an earthly king would be, in a castle with the best of amenities. He was born in a lowly manager, to a poor family and there was nothing physically commanding or special about how He looked. Then Isaiah prophesies (it’s interesting how this is hundreds of years before Christ’s death, but Isaiah speaks as though he is looking backwards, not forwards) that Jesus would be “despised and rejected by men”. Just as I pointed out that the voice speaking changes from God at the end of chapter 52 to Isaiah now, we must also follow Isaiah’s description of who is doing and receiving the actions that he is prophesying of. In verse 3, he tells us that it is men that (will) despised and rejected Christ. He wasn’t respected and was largely ignored with respect to being God’s Son.
In the first part of verse 4, we see a passage quoted by Matthew in his gospel account, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” Matthew 8:17 The word “griefs” in Isaiah’s passage is better translated sicknesses, so as we read in Matthew’s context, Jesus has just healed many and in an even larger context all sickness and disease will be abolished in heaven, because of Jesus. So the prophecy of Isaiah reached its first fulfillment in the earthly ministry of Jesus.
The second part of verse 4 is where the objection to penal substitutionary atonement has been made. The objection follows like this, “Isaiah states that “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” and this language clearly indicates that the speculation of the Jews that Jesus was punished by God for the sins of the people was an error in the minds of the Jewish people. So it follows that Jesus did die for sins, but was not punished by God, nor did He receive God’s wrath for those sins. In summary, this verse tells us that it is a Jewish error to assume that Jesus took the punishment from God for our sins”
One immediate problem with this objection is that Isaiah has not even made the connection yet between Jesus and sin, so it’s error to assume this. It’s actually taking the remainder of the passage and reading it back into verse 4 and it leads to a faulty conclusion.
There are several additional problems with this objection, but first let’s summarize what we’ve been learning through Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus’ suffering and death. We started with God announcing that His Son Jesus was His servant, so it follows that He is going forth to do the will of God and serve Him in some capacity. God Himself tells us of the physical beating and disfiguring that takes place on the cross, “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” Then He says the following, “so shall he sprinkle many nations.” What is being sprinkled here by Jesus? God Himself is saying that His Son will sprinkle His blood on many nations. Remember back to our first post on the Day of Atonement when the high priest sacrificed a goat and took the blood and sprinkled it on the mercy seat, thereby making propitiation. Here God is alluding to the Old Testament atonement, but is linking it to His Son, who makes THE propitiation. As we will see in a future post, Jesus not only fulfilled the office of High Priest with His atonement, but was Himself the sacrifice. Continuing our summary of what we’ve read so far, we then looked at how Isaiah goes on to shed light on Jesus’ earthly ministry and as we’ve seen his prophecy was considered fulfilled by Matthew.
Now back to the objection that has been raised, “Yet, we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” The little phrase “yet, we esteemed” is actually 1 Hebrew word, chashab, which the ESV and KJV have translated into the phrase you just read. This word, in the Hebrew, gives the idea of “to think” or “make judgment”. So if I were to simply explain here what is being said by Isaiah, it would be this, “He [Jesus] healed our sicknesses and diseases, but we thought He was punished and beaten by God in order to be humbled by God.” The objection stated here is correct in saying that the Jews had the wrong idea about why Jesus was being crucified, but the objection itself is wrong in dismissing God the Father from the equation. Let’s look at first why the Jewish thought was wrong.
In Matthew 26 we read of Jesus’ trial before the high priest Caiaphas, “62 And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”
In this passage we see Caiaphas accusing Jesus of blasphemy and the judgment of death being declared. On what basis were they claiming that Jesus deserved death for alleged blasphemy? The law, namely as defined in Leviticus 24:16, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death.” When Isaiah says that “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” he is saying that the people wrongly thought that Jesus was being punished for blasphemy. This is where they got it wrong, because Jesus really is the Son of God; it was not blasphemous for Him to say so. However, notice that the Jews rightly recognized that God upholds the holiness of His name and His law and it is He that executes judgment based on violations of His law. The Jews recognized that a violation of God’s law resulted in punishment by God to the offender. They understood that, but wrongly accounted Jesus as a blasphemer.
Remember earlier when I said it’s important for us to realize who is doing the action in these verses and who is receiving the action? In this verse, Isaiah has established that God the Father is doing the action and God the Son is receiving the action and this is not broken, until he tells us. In verse 5, he has not broken off of this idea yet, but simply corrects the faulty view that the Jews had of believing Jesus died for His sin of blasphemy. He clearly states the actual reason for Jesus’ death, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” We must ask here, given our context, who is administering the wounding, crushing, and chastisement? Is it men or God? Obviously men are carrying out the action, but is it ultimately at their hand that Jesus is suffering? No! If that were the case, then Isaiah would be saying that men punished Jesus for taking the sins of men. Not only is that supported nowhere in Scripture, it doesn’t even makes good sense. Isaiah is saying here that Jesus wasn’t punished by God for His own sin of blasphemy (which He was accused of), but instead he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was chastised (muwcar) meaning disciplined or corrected, which gives the idea of punishment in order to bring about corrective action, by God and this brought us (believers) peace.
In Romans 5:1 we read of this peace made with God, “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Later in this same chapter, Paul states, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Romans 5:9 Unbelievers are under the wrath of God (John 3:36), there is no peace between them and Holy God. But believers, those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, have peace with God. Where did the wrath that was once on them go? Did it simply vanish? No! As we read in this passage from Isaiah, God poured it out on His Son by wounding, crushing, and punishing Jesus for the sins of all those who believe. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” Isaiah 53:10
If you don’t understand or can’t accept that Jesus took the punishment that was due to you, if you are a believer, then you need to ask yourself why. Why don’t you like it? Because it’s too unbelievable? Because it’s too bloody, too gruesome? That is the amazing love of Jesus Christ for His people. That He was willing to lay His life down for His sheep and take the punishment, namely the wrath of God, that was due to them. Unbeliever, you have but 2 choices, face the wrath of God for yourself for your sins. Or place your faith in Jesus Christ, the one who absorbed the wrath of God for sinners just like you. Ask God for mercy. Then repent and believe.