Showing posts with label Isaiah 53. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Isaiah 53. Show all posts

Friday, July 24, 2015

Did God Abandon Jesus at the Cross?

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Mark 15:34)
Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” has often caused Christians to think that God had abandoned him there. Some have further supposed that this was because God is too holy to look on sin, and so, too holy to look on Jesus as he was bearing our sins.

This cry, however, does not mean that God had forsaken him. It does not even mean that Jesus felt abandoned by God on the cross. It is, rather, the first line of Psalm 22 and, in typical Jewish fashion, Jesus was evoking the whole psalm. There are several elements in that psalm that prefigure the cross, and what we discover when we read through the entire prayer is that God did not forsake the author at all. In verse 24, the author even affirms that God has not forsaken him. In fact, in the latter half of Psalm 22, we see that God heard his cry — and delivered him.

Likewise, at no time on the cross did the Father ever forsake the Son. Quite the opposite, we see that Jesus commended his Spirit into the hands of the Father, and the Father delivered him from death by means of the resurrection.

The Christian faith is that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the Trinity. Though there are Three Persons in the Godhead, this does not mean that God is divided into three parts, each being one-third God. They co-inhere, existing together in one substance. Early Church Fathers as well as some modern theologians, have referred to this as perichoresis, the divine interaction and interpenetration of the Three in one Being. It is impossible, then, for one person of the Trinity to ever forsake another. It would be God forsaking God’s own self and that would be the dissolution of God.

The prophet Habakkuk, in the Old Testament, prayed to the Lord and said, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” (Habakkuk 1:13). This has been offered by some as the reason God had to abandon Jesus on the cross. Jesus was bearing the sin of the world, so God turned away from him because he is too holy to look upon sin. However, in addition to the ontological problem created by God forsaking God’s own self, there are a couple of other problems with that supposition.

First, it ignores what Habakkuk immediately went on to say. Within the same verse where he tells God that God is too pure to look on evil, he then asks, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” In other words, “Why then do you look on evil?” What Habakkuk had assumed to be true of God in the first half of the verse is contradicted by his complaint in the second half.

Second, the life of Jesus suggests something different. In the Gospel, Jesus is seen having table fellowship with publicans (tax collectors) and sinners (Mark 2:16). This was one of the complaints the Pharisees had against him. In the book of Hebrews, however, Jesus is called the “express image” or “exact representation” of God’s being — yet that did not mean that he had to turn away from publicans and prostitutes and sinners. He looked on them, beholding them with eyes of love, because he came to redeem them.

When we consider the context of Psalm 22:1 and the identity of Jesus in relation to the Father, there is no reason to imagine that God the Father could not look upon God the Son, Jesus, in his sin-bearing role. It becomes nonsensical and contradictory to the nature and being of God to suppose so.

God never turned away from Christ. Indeed, God has never turned away from us. For it was not God who needed to be reconciled to us — it was we who needed to be reconciled to God. And that is exactly what God was doing at the cross. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). The cross was not God’s act of retribution but God’s act of reconciliation.

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.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Cross Was Not Divine Retribution

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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Did God Punish Jesus on the Cross?

Was the cross a punishment God inflicted on Jesus? One verse that is used to teach that it was is Isaiah 53:10. Isaiah 53 is about the Suffering Servant, who is understood to be Messiah. This passage, then, is understood by the Church to be about the cross and the atonement. Let’s read it, first, in the New International Version, which is in agreement with most other English versions.
Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer. (NIV)
Other versions have it similarly: “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief” (New King James Version). “And Jehovah hath delighted to bruise him, He hath made him sick” (Young’s Literal Translation). “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (English Standard Version).

Was the cross really about God crushing Jesus, bruising him, making him sick? I used to think so, and this was a verse I used to teach that. I taught that Jesus took God’s punishment in our place, that God crushed Jesus, venting his anger on him so he would not have to vent it on us. This is known as the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. In recent years, however, I have had to let that theory go, because what I have seen in Scripture leads me to a different conclusion, a different understanding of the cross.

So what about Isaiah 53:10, then? Are the English versions quoted above the best rendering of Isaiah’s words? They are direct translations of the Hebrew text, at least of the best one that is available today, but do they give us the best sense of what Isaiah prophesied?

There is another family of translations that is very ancient. It is known as the Septuagint, also referred to as the LXX. A couple of hundred years before Christ, a group of Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for the benefit of post-exilic Jews who were scattered in Greek-speaking countries and had forgotten the Hebrew language. The traditional story is that these Jewish scholars were seventy in number, which is why this collection is call Septuagint, which means “seventy,” as do the Roman numerals, LXX.

Now, here is why the Septuagint is important for us consider: It was the version of the Old Testament Scriptures that was used by the early Church, even by the apostles themselves. Whenever the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament, guess which version is used — the Septuagint!

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Septuagint renders Isaiah 53:10. I could give you the Greek words themselves, which would be a simple cut and paste, but since many do not read Greek, I will quote the Brenton version, which is a classic English translation of the LXX. Then I will tell you about the Greek verb that is used:
The Lord also is pleased to purge him from his stroke. (Brenton)
The Greek word for “stroke” is plege and here speaks of a wound that has been inflicted by a blow. The verb for “purge” is katharizo and means to cleanse or purify. It is where we get our English word “catharsis.” The St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint version has Isaiah 53:10 this way: “The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound.”

The important thing to notice here is that God does not crush or bruise the Messiah, or make him sick. God does not inflict any wound on him. Quite the opposite, God is shown as cleansing and healing the wound!

The LXX reading seems to me more like what I find in the New Testament concerning the cross. When I think, for example, of how Peter and Stephen preached the gospel in the book of Acts, the cross was not something God did to Christ but something wicked men did. What God did was to raise Christ from the dead.

Isaiah 53 presents a stunning image of what Christ suffered in the atonement. But I do not think it is a picture of God crushing, bruising or punishing Christ. It is a portrait of God delivering Christ — and us through him.