But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5, NIV)
How did one man’s death nearly two thousand years ago lead to our forgiveness today?
The Bible’s astonishing answer is that Jesus was our substitute: he took the punishment we deserve, that we might be forgiven.
This is the plain meaning of the great prophecy about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, quoted above. Although dating from many centuries before the events it describes, the first Christians realised that it is explaining Jesus’ death. In the verse quoted, the language of exchange is plain: he was pierced for our transgressions… the punishment that brought us peace was upon him. The Apostle Peter expresses the same idea when he writes: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24). (The word tree implies, in Jewish law, that Jesus was to be seen as under God’s curse.)
In an old translation of one of Martin Luther’s works we find the Reformer saying this:
Our most merciful Father sent His only Son into the world and laid upon Him all the sins of all men, saying, “Jesus, be thou Peter, that denyer; Paul, that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; be thou David, that adulterer; be thou that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly, be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men. See therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them.
Now there are some who find this idea of Christ taking our punishment unpalatable. Perhaps, partly, it is because they don’t like the idea that God would punish anyone; perhaps, also, because it so beats down our pride. Others, again, wonder whether it’s really what the Bible teaches, or whether it’s been cooked up by theologians since.
But this great truth is clearly affirmed by the Bible, in many ways. A small sample:
The gospel accounts of the death of Jesus clearly link this with the Passover, that ancient event (in Exodus 12) in which a lamb takes the place of the firstborn son in each house: the lamb is killed that the firstborn son might live.
The whole sacrificial system in Leviticus has at its heart the idea of transfer of guilt, as the priest lays his hands on the sacrificial victim’s head, confessing sins.
The gospel accounts show that Jesus was treated at his death as a criminal; that the fact that he was not released allowed a real criminal to go free; that his mockers cried “He saved others; let him save himself”. All these are hints of this explanation.
The Apostle Paul wrote, most astonishingly, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The wonderful consequence: By his wounds we are healed.
And should it not fill us with praise? As a friend of mine has put it: ’For God to permit a substitute was very merciful; to provide a substitute amazing grace - but to become a substitute is grace beyond all measure.’
Subscribe to receive St Andrew the Great blog alerts by email.