…when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

-1 Peter 2:23-25

The Distinction between Crime and Punishment 

In this post I will be developing what I shall call the “persecution” reading of Isaiah 53 in contrast to the “penalty” reading of Isaiah 53 by drawing considerably from John Goldingay and David Payne commentary on Isaiah (from here on I shall simply refer to them as “Goldingay”). My basic thesis would be that the verses in Isaiah 53 which speaks of Christ “bearing our sins” are to be read as Christ enduring our sinful rejection and “persecutions” against him in the likeness of the Romans and Jews who persecuted and executed Christ, and in that sense, Christ endured, bore, or suffered their sinful actions against him. To better understand  this point it would be useful to make a distinction between “crime” and “punishment”.

The English word “sin” is ambiguous in that it does not distinguish between the (1) act of sin, the subsequent (2) guilt the sinful act incurs, and finally the (3) penalty or punishment for the sin which follows from this conviction of guilt. This is of course compounded by the fact that we use the word “sin” as both a verb and a noun, people sin and also possess sins. We both act sinfully against others and have our conscience burdened by sin or the guilt of sin.

It is therefore important that we keep distinct the crime, or the sinful act itself, from the punishment or the guilt and penalty which follows from the sinful act. With these distinctions in mind I believe that it would be obvious how my “persecuted” reading of Isaiah 53 differs from that of the “penalty” reading of the same.

The Background of Rejection

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
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.
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.

-Isaiah 53:1-3

While there is considerable scholarly discussion as to whom the first person plurals of “we” refer to, I do not believe that it needs be settled decisively one way or another. Goldingay suggests very strongly that it refers to the Jacob-Israel and that the prophet is speaking as a representative of that collective entity. It has also been suggested the first person plural may have a wider reference to the “nations” and not merely to Jacob-Israel. For the purpose of this post however, one could be satisfied that the “we” simply refers to anyone apart from the Messianic “suffering servant”.

Moving on, it is notable that Isaiah 53 begins with an exposition of our rejection of the Messiah. The passage as such already sets the tone for the rest of the prophecy in the context of our crime or sinful act of not recognising, “despising” and “rejecting”the Messiah. Thus the passage already begins with a focus upon our sinful acts of rejection and contempt towards the Suffering Servant.

Enduring the Sufferings We caused Him by our Sinful Acts Against Him

4. Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5. But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6. All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

-Isaiah 53:4-6

After having set up our sinning and rejecting of the Suffering Servant, the prophet goes on to speak about the Suffering Servant’s endurance of our “iniquities” and our “transgressions” and our “sorrows” and “grief”. Let’s  begin first with verse 5.

Goldingay suggests the following translation for the first part of verse 5:

… when he was someone wounded because of our rebellions, crushed because of our wrongdoings.

The “persecution” reading becomes a lot more obvious with this translation. Christ was “pierced” because of what we did against him, we rejected and despised him and we had him crucified. Thus what Christ suffered was not so much the penalty or guilt of our sin, but rather he suffered our sinful actions or crimes against him. The replacement of “for” in “for our iniquities” with “because of” is the more accurate reading of the Hebrew word “min”.

So much for the “persecution” reading of verse 5, that Christ suffered our sinful persecutions of him, and in that sin he was “pierced for our transgressions”. But what about verse 4? How exactly is it possible to read verse 4 in the persecution way? It is hard to say that Christ “borne” or endured the actions of our griefs or sufferings. That doesn’t sound very plausible. That is perfectly true and it is not the reading which I shall take here.

Matthew 8:16-17 provides an interesting reading of Isaiah 53:4 it reads:

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Now given the context of Matthew 8:16-17, it is clear that Matthew interprets “took” and “bore”, not in the sense of “took on” or transferring the infirmities and diseases onto Jesus, but in the sense of “took away” by curing or healing those so afflicted by demonic possession and diseases. After all, Jesus himself was not possessed by the demons or afflicted with the same diseases. As such, the New Testament itself has provided a reading of verse 4 that does not require, and in fact precludes, the penal substitutionary reading where our that Christ bore our infirmities and diseases in the sense of bearing and carrying them away, Christ did not take on the diseases of those he healed.

Let’s go back to verse 5. What about the “chastisement” that “was upon him”? This verse doesn’t seem to refer to any chastisement of ours, we can’t possibly chastise Christ in the same way that we can transgress against Christ. For this part of the verse we need to refer to Goldingay comments on the word “chastisement”:

The RSV renders ‘punishment’, but the word does not especially suggest the action of a court undertaken for the sake of justice. It is more a word for the disciplining of a pupil by a teacher or a child by a parent with a view to the recipient’s growth or reform. The LXX renders παιδία (‘education’); the Tg’s ‘by his teaching his well-being will multiply upon us’ assumes that the discipline is the teaching itself.

If chastisement doesn’t so much as refer to a judicial penalty or punishment but rather an educational discipline, how does that apply to Christ? This would make sense in the light of Hebrews 2:10:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Christ was perfected in some sense through his suffering, and having himself suffered and been tempted, “he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18). Therefore we can infer that the “chastisement” or discipline which was upon Christ was the education to perfect him and make him familiar with suffering and temptation. It is this perfection of him which will heal us or make us whole or promote our well-being. It is clear however that it is difficult, if not impossible to read the Hebrew word “musar” translated as chastisement as carrying a penal significance rather than an educational/disciplinarian one.

It will be useful to discuss briefly the second part of verse 6, “the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all”, before concluding this section. Goldingay directly translates the second part of verse 6 as:

And Yhwh let the wrongdoing of all of us fall upon him.

This translation makes the verse a lot easier to read in the persecution manner. The verse therefore straightforwardly says that God let all our sinful rejection or contempt of Christ fall upon Christ. Thus God has essentially “laid” or burdened Christ with our sinful acts or literal ‘wrong doings’ against him.

There is obviously a lot more to be said for this passage, but I believe that the most difficult verses for my “persecution” explanations have been dealt with. From here it is relatively easy to read the other versus with the “persecution” understanding. Thus when Isaiah speaks of Christ bearing our sins or iniquities, it is a straightforward affair to read it as Christ enduring or suffering our sinful actions and iniquitous persecution against him.

What about verse 10 where “Christ’s soul shall made a sin-offering”? That can easily be read in an innocuous way as simply affirming the sacrificial nature of Christ’s life where he gave up his own that we might be clean from sin and have life, without necessarily reading into it any systematic theological baggage.

I believe it would be fitting to end this section by going back to one of the rare few New Testament allusions to Isaiah 53 in 1 Peter 2:21:25, part of which was quoted at the start of this post. It is interesting to note that this passage also retains our “persecution” reading structure. It also begins with Christ being reviled and Christ not reviling in return, enduring or suffering our rebellious or sinful actions against him. It is this context or sense which defends the verse 24 where he “bore our sins in his body”.

Atonement by Concrete Forgiveness against Him

Having established that Isaiah 53 is best read as the Messiah enduring persecutions rather than bearing our punishments, I turn now to sketch out a different understanding of the mechanics of the atonement. This theory will have four components: (1) Federal victimhood; (2) Expiation/Propitiation by divine forgiveness/intercession.

 (1) Federal Victimhood

The name of this idea is meant to express a certain analogy to the Reformed theologian’s idea of a “federation” between Adam and his descendants where the sins of Adam are imputed to his descendants as their “Head” while the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believers being in a federal union with Christ their head.

The idea of federal victimhood is that Christ, being the Second Adam, is not merely the head of the Church but he is ultimately the representative and head of every human creature. This is beautifully illustrated in the parable of the Sheep and Goat in Matthew 25:31-46 where whatever we do to the least of men are done to the King and whatever we fail to do for the least of men who have not done for the King. As such, Jesus Christ is the ultimate victim and persecuted one, who is the representative and head of all men, all sins against any particular human being are sins against Jesus Christ. If all sins directed against men ultimately are directed against Jesus Christ, then this leads us to the next point: Jesus can then directly forgive all such sins against himself personally.

(2) Expiation/Propitiation by Forgiveness

Isaiah 53:12 itself leads us to this forgiveness of sins against himself personally as right after “he bore the sins of many”, or endured their sinful persecution of him, that is immediately followed by he “makes intercession for the transgressors”, that is, he prayed for his own persecutors, fitting very well with Christ’s prayer on the Cross to his Father to forgive his persecutors for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Thus all of our sins are, in some sense, “transferred” to Christ. However unlike the traditional penal substitutionary atonement understanding, Christ does not stand in our stead as the receiver of our punishment, he stands in our stead as the receiver of our persecutions and sins against other people. He is the proper victim of our sins against God and his creatures. Then being properly the Head and Representative of all mankind he forgives us of our sins against himself and against them, but only if they forgive as they also have been forgiven.

Conclusion: What Happens on the Ground

The basic objection, as far as I could see, to this theory is that it removes the “necessity” of the atonement. God can always forgive sins so why does God have to “redirect” all sins to his Son and then have him do the forgiving? To ask such a question however is to fundamentally misconstrue the nature of the atonement as necessity constrained, as something God has to do if he wants to achieve something. This is an example of what I have called the “upward traffic” theory of the atonement where something happens “down here” in order to affect some alteration “up there” in the heavens, whether it is to defeat cosmic demons, balance some divine accounting books, etc.

Suppose however we began with a basic outline of “what happened” here, on the ground. What happened was simply that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, preached the kingdom and acted righteously, and for that he was persecuted and murdered. However he forgave his persecutors, rose from the dead, and continued advancing his kingdom. That is just what God did and what God chose to do. That’s how he chose to inaugurate his Kingdom, relate to sinners, forgive their sins, etc. We could either believe in his preaching and enter the Kingdom and be likewise forgiven or not. The atonement as such is not a solution to a systematic problem or some metaphysical conundrum or dilemma up there in the heavens,  the atonement is just what Jesus did to achieve a certain end and that’s that.

To conclude, I think that this persecution reading of Isaiah 53 is a lot more natural, mapping the bearing iniquity and sins language directly unto Christ enduring, suffering or bearing our concrete sinful actions and crimes against him, and doing justice to the prophetic flow which moves from our persecutiorial attitude against Christ to the concrete actual persecution against Christ in the Romans and Jews and all of us. The metaphysical or heavenly transaction of the guilt or punishment of sin unto Christ however is a lot harder to square with the texts and seems a little arbitrary.

One thought on “Isaiah 53: Bearing our Punishment or Enduring our Persecutions? A Persecutorial Theory of the Atonement”
  1. What do you think of many contemporary Evangelicals’ discussion of “sin-nature”? Or, more biblically, how do you understand the personification of sin/metaphysicality of sin as entity (e.g. “Christ became sin…”; “Sin in me”; “Sin is crouching at the door”)?

    I think this reading makes sense, I’m curious about possible elaborations/rebuttals.

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