Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah, the Christ, showing him as the Suffering Servant. Christians find in this a portrayal of the cross and the atonement. Many Christians — certainly not all, nor even all evangelicals — understand the atonement to be about Christ suffering the wrath of God in our place, being punished by God for our sake. I held this view myself for many years but have given it up because I cannot find it taught in Scripture.
More than that, it seems to me to contradict the example and teaching of Jesus Christ, who is called the “exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3). He taught us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good to them and to forgive. In view of that, it seems a major disconnect to understand the cross as God taking revenge. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Isaiah 53 and notice a few things.
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. (Isaiah 53:3-5)By whom was Jesus despised and rejected — by God? No, certainly not by God. Not at any time. It was men who held Jesus in contempt and sought to be rid of him, even though he identified with them in their suffering and pain. In the Gospel, Jesus’ ministry of healing and exorcism is understood as the fulfillment of this.
When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:17-18)There is not the slightest hint here that it had anything to do with Jesus the Messiah bearing the wrath of God.
Jesus came to heal his people and deliver them from bondage and oppression. Yet, on the cross, he was thought by some to have been the object of divine retribution. Pounded by God. Stricken by God. Afflicted by God. But the truth of the matter was quite different, on two counts.
First, what happened to Jesus was not on account of any lawlessness or sinfulness of his own. It was because of the lawlessness and sinfulness of his people, which came to full force at the cross. See how Stephen describes it in Acts 7:51-53.
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him — you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.It was not the wrath of God but the rage and wickedness of men that put Jesus on the cross.
Second, what happened to Jesus was not divine retribution, not on his own account nor anyone else’s. The Hebrew word Isaiah uses, musar, speaks of something very different. The NIV translates it as “punishment,” but it is not the same word translated as “punish” in the previous verse. Several other versions translate it as “chastisement,” because it is about discipline and correction, not about retribution or wrath.
“The chastisement that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed,” Isaiah says. Notice how he speaks indirectly about it. God was not chastising Jesus on the cross — there was nothing in Jesus that needed correction. But what happened to him there served as a chastening and correction for the people of God. We can see an example of this in Acts 2, when Peter preached the gospel to the Jews gathered at Jerusalem for Pentecost. He told of Jesus and how they had crucified and killed him by wicked hands (v. 23). He concluded his sermon with, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (v. 36).
Now, notice the response, in verse 37: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Friends, those people were chastened by the realization that they had rejected and crucified the Messiah, whom God anointed as Lord over all. They were filled with regret and shame and desired to be put right with God. Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
What happened at the cross chastens us, corrects us and turns us back to God. The cross is where we receive forgiveness, where we find our peace and are made whole. What happened at the cross was not angry God pouring out retribution on Christ instead of on us. It was Christ facing the full force of evil and wickedness in the world — and defeating it for our sake! It was where he disarmed the principalities and powers, where he broke the power of sin, the power of the devil, even the power of death.
At the cross, it was the world that sought retribution and poured out its anger. But God poured out his love for the sake of restoration. For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.