Revisiting atonement

Isaiah 53: 1-12

Years ago in a public school in southern Saskatchewan, I got into trouble with my schoolmate, Waldo. (I still think the scuffle was really his fault.) After school, the two of us were summoned by our teacher, Mr. Neufeld. He gave us a severe reprimand, added a mini-lecture, and punished us: each of us had to memorize Isaiah 53. Such action was politically okay in that time, when even the provincial curriculum prescribed Bible readings.

On “accountability day” a sheepish Waldo recited Isaiah 52 (15 verses) instead of Isaiah 53 (12 verses). He had gotten it wrong. I chuckled with pleasure because my partner in crime had more punishment than I.
In those days, the subject of Isaiah 53 was very straightforward. As a sinner, I deserved punishment. In the imaginary courtroom, I was in the dock – guilty, and waiting for the sentence. But “Another” took my sentence and I went free. Even more: as a sinner with misdemeanours galore, I was declared righteous.

But I return to Isaiah 53, this time to answer an email that questions whether penal substitution is what this chapter is about. Is the old, familiar interpretation correct? Are we to think of an angry God who needs to punish because he is just?

I hunker down to do a careful review. Substitution language is decidedly there. How can there be argument about that? “He was wounded for our transgressions” (v. 5). “He was stricken for the transgression of my people” (v. 8). “He shall bear their iniquities” (v. 11).  “He bore the sins of many” (v. 12).

Later I check a commentary and find the sub-heading, “Punished for others.” That indeed is what the text says. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (v. 5b).   The traditional view is right about this chapter. It has powerful overtones to the atoning work of Christ, and it is about substitution.

But Isaiah 53 does not have the feel of a courtroom. Is the text about penal substitution then?

Someone is described as acquainted with grief. The servant is bearing our “infirmities” and “carrying our diseases.” Such language is about illness. The setting is a hospital, not a courtroom. Is this not a picture of a willing substitute, giving a blood infusion in order that another might live?  This blood donor, even if called to give all his blood and die, would do it for the well-being of that other person!

“Interpret in light of the context” is a basic rule of interpretation. And what is the larger context here? The previous chapters speak of God’s tenderness. They tell of a God who is comforting his people (51:3, 12), one who announces that “on the day of salvation I have helped you” (49:8). The caring God restores his people. Not even Isaiah 53 pictures an angry God seeking punishment (though other texts do stress God’s angry displeasure with sin and sinners, for e.g. Amos 8–9).

Back in my public school days, Isaiah 53 was about someone taking my penalty. And I still read it that way. But, tempered by a further insight about God’s healing restoration,   I now read this chapter not so much as a calculated dose of punishment ladled out in proportion to my guilt but as a text that pictures a totally-giving person.

What emerges is the Servant (Messiah) being a substitute. But how can this be so? Is there an explanation here at all? No, this servant’s act is beyond the mechanics of calculation. Still, the transaction is a fact. And it is real. Jesus took my place, and that is wondrous news!

No less now than when I was a youngster, I have need of “atonement.” My appreciation for the suffering servant, Christ the stricken, crucified one, grows with the insights from Isaiah 53. Christ is a substitute; the metaphor, however, is enlarged. (A single picture of atonement cannot convey it all.) Here is talk of someone carrying wounds and diseases. The Saviour figure is the healer, the “wounded healer.”

I am moved by this totally-giving person in my place. As the song (source unknown) puts it:

Just to think of the cross moves me now, The nails in his hands, the bleeding brow; Just to think of the cross moves me now, It should have been me; It should have been me. Instead I am free!

—Elmer Martens is president emeritus and emeritus professor of Old Testament at MB Biblical Seminary and the author of several books, including God’s Design. He lives in Fresno, Cal. 

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Isaiah 53:1-12 (link to BibleGateway.com)

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities…he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many…. (verses 4–5, 11, 12 NRSV).

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