Isaiah 53.3-6Today is Good Friday and we all know that the church has used this text to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus. Isaiah 53 has come to be an important text for atonement theology, especially substitution theories of atonement. "By his wounds we have been healed." And later in Verse 12: "For he bore the sins of many."
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
These associations--Jesus bore our sins on the cross and by his wounds we have been healed--are automatic for most Christians. But in our study out at the prison I wanted to go back and address the question about who the Suffering Servant was during the time of Isaiah. Who was Isaiah (or the particular writer or writers of Isaiah 53) speaking about in his time and place?
Who is this servant who is crushed for our iniquities?
There's been a lot of scholarly debate about who the servant might be in Isaiah 53. The theory I'm most drawn to, and the one I shared out at the prison, is that the servant is the faithful remnant in Israel.
Roughly, Isaiah is broken up into two historical sections. Chapters 1-39 come mostly before the Babylonian exile. So these chapters are mainly portents and warnings about Israel's unfaithfulness. (Though there are some bright spots like good King Hezekiah and the failure of the Assyrian invasion.)
Chapters 40-66 come after the Babylonian exile as the Jews start heading back home.
Sprinkled throughout Isaiah are oracles that before, during and after the exile there will be a faithful remnant. Though Israel has turned her back on God and gone over into idolatry there are a few, sprinkled amongst the wicked masses, who remain faithful to YHWH. God sees this faithful remnant and promises to rebuild Israel upon them. The remnant are a seed that God will plant to re-grow the people of God.
Isaiah 6.13As you can see in both these texts, YHWH sees the remnant but the punishment of exile is still going to happen. Even upon the remnant. And that's the key. Exile falls upon the innocent as well as the wicked.
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land
In that day the remnant of Israel,
the survivors of Jacob,
will no longer rely on him
who struck them down
but will truly rely on the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel.
A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob
will return to the Mighty God.
Though your people be like the sand by the sea, Israel,
only a remnant will return.
Destruction has been decreed,
overwhelming and righteous.
The Lord, the Lord Almighty, will carry out
the destruction decreed upon the whole land.
However, after the punishment/exile is over the faithful remnant "will return" and become a "holy seed" so that Israel can experience a new birth in the land.
In short, when God punishes Israel God knows that the faithful, innocent remnant is also being punished along with the wicked, idolatrous masses. The remnant is, thus, "bearing the sins" of others. The remnant, though innocent, is also "stricken by God" just like everyone else being sent into exile.
Isaiah 53.8-9And yet, if the remnant bears the exile faithfully--"He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."--the remnant will be the eventual salvation of Israel. The wounds inflicted upon the patiently enduring remnant will be how Israel gets saved and restored. In the end, by suffering faithfully alongside the wicked, the faithfulness of the remnant will be rewarded:
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Isaiah 53.11-12How this vision connects with Jesus, then, is straightforward. Especially if you've read a lot of N.T. Wright.
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
As the gospels open Israel is back in her homeland, back from Babylonian exile. However, there is still this sense that the full restoration has yet to occur. There was a sense, in the face of things like Roman occupation, that the exile had not fully ended. God had not yet returned in person to Zion and to the Temple (Spoiler alert: Triumphal Entry).
God, it seemed, was still punishing Israel.
So what was needed was a truly faithful and truly innocent remnant to become the "holy seed" out of which a restored People of God would grow. But according to Isaiah 53, that faithful seed would experience the punishment and pain of exile alongside his brothers and sisters. But if this holy seed were, perhaps, fully blameless and fully sinless and fully innocent then perhaps his death would bring about the full and complete liberation of Israel. The Gordian knot of the Deuteronomic Covenant--where Israel willingly agreed to experience exile if she was unfaithful--would have been fully and finally cut. The cloud of the Deuteronomic Curses, which had hung over Israel for generations and generations and generations, would finally be lifted. And with that cloud lifted, the Kingdom and Rule of God promised to come to the nations through Israel could finally break out into the world (Spoiler Alert: the Great Commission and the Book of Acts).
So, Jesus becomes this faithful seed as the truly Innocent One who bears the Deuteronomic Curse alongside his wicked brothers and sisters so that their exile may finally come to an end.
[Drop mic and walk out.]
But a question might be raised at this point...
[Come back and pick up mic.]
Is what I'm describing the calculus of penal substitutionary atonement, with its vision of a wrathful God?
Sort of, but not quite. There is a penal vision at work here, but it's the penal framework agreed to by YHWH and Israel when they got "married"--formed a covenant--in Deuteronomy. Any legal frame goes back to that moment. Basically, this isn't really about you or I going to hell. To be sure, all this affects you and I, but the penal issues, the judgment and wrath of God, are historical and covenantal in nature.
Basically, when the bible speaks about "the forgiveness of sins" it is referring to the forgiveness of Israel's sins.
More precisely, the "forgiveness of sins" is the end of Israel's exile in Jesus Christ. Which was needed for the Kingdom of God to expand out from Israel and into the whole world. Thus, the forgiveness of sins--the end of Israel's exile--leads to salvation reaching you and I in the gospel proclamation that the Kingdom of God has spilled out into the nations, that "Jesus is Lord of all."
In short, any "penal substitution" is covenantal and historical in nature. Consequently, rather than penal substitutionary atonement I've suggested that we speak of covenantal substitutionary atonement.
That's the logic at work in Isaiah 53, for both the faithful remnant during the Babylonian exile and in the Christian understanding of what took place on the cross.