Thursday, July 23, 2015

Not Divine Wrath But Divine Willingness


What Christ suffered on the cross came as no surprise to him, or to the Father. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” John 3:16 says. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It was necessary for the salvation of the world, and the LORD, whom Christians understand as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was willing for it to be so. We see this in Isaiah 53, which the Church has understood from the beginning to be about Christ and the atonement.
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. 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. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? 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. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:6-10)
The LORD was willing to lay on the Son the “iniquity of us all,” but notice that it does not say he laid divine retribution on him. The St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint version puts it this way: “The Lord delivered Him over for our sins.” The Brenton translation of the Septuagint translates it: “The Lord gave him up for our sins.” It was not God’s wrath that Jesus faced on the cross but the terrible perversity and waywardness of sin that infects us all. That is what put him there, and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were willing for it to happen. The purpose was not retribution but restoration. It was a “chastening,” a correction for the people of God in order to bring them shalom — wholeness.

Clement of Alexandria, an early Church Father (AD 150-215), spoke about it this way: “‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ that is, to correct our iniquities and set them right. For that reason, he alone is able to forgive our sins, he who has been appointed by the Father of all as our educator, for he alone is able to separate obedience from disobedience” (Christ the Educator 1.8.67-68).

We also see the willingness of Jesus the Messiah in his humanity. In Isaiah 53, though Messiah was oppressed and afflicted, he did not open his mouth in defense but let himself be led like a lamb to the slaughter. In the Gospel, Jesus said of himself, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life — only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). He offered his life willingly, for love. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In the Garden of Gethsemane, betrayed by Judas and surrounded by an armed mob, Jesus told Peter, “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?’” (Matthew 26:52-53). He showed divine restraint and went willingly to the cross.

As Isaiah continues, we see that it was the LORD’s will to “crush” Messiah and “cause him to suffer.” In a recent post, we looked at how the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text) speaks of this, not as crushing and causing the wounds of Messiah but as cleansing his wounds. However, even taking the Masoretic Hebrew text into consideration, it is not the wrath of God but the willingness of God that is portrayed here.

God is said here to be the cause of Messiah’s suffering, but the injury of Jesus the Messiah was actually done by faithless Jews leaders and pagan Roman hands. God did not make them do it, as if it were not already in their hearts to do so, but God allowed them to do what was in their hearts, having a greater purpose in mind — making the life of Messiah an “offering for sin.”

In the Old Testament, a “sin offering” was not a propitiation, averting the wrath of God, but an expiation, removing the offense. It was not about divine retribution but about removing the sin and cleansing the sinner. Notice in Isaiah 53 that it was the LORD who was making Messiah an offering for sin. This was not God trying to placate himself toward his people. Rather, the fact that he himself was the one making the offering demonstrates that he was already graciously disposed toward his people.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist called Jesus, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Not, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the wrath of God.” In First John, the sacrificial death of Messiah is understood not as averting divine wrath but as cleansing us from sin: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:9).

Isaiah 53 is not a demonstration of God pouring out his wrath on the Suffering Servant, nor is the sacrificial death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross. It is a display of the loving willingness of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — to forgive, cleanse and restore God’s people to fellowship.