A father has a perfect son as well as a rebellious child. The rebellious child has gotten himself into quite a mess of trouble with his dad.
He cleared out his bank account. He secretly took out a second mortgage on the home. He wrecked the family car. He is in so much debt to his father there is no way he can pay it back.
So, the father decides to take all of his wrath and anger out upon the perfect child. It makes him feel better, and now he can once again have a relationship with the rebellious son.
What’s more, he takes the life savings of the good son and pays off all the debt he accumulated. The good son is pierced for the sin of the bad son.
Is that what Isaiah 53:5 is teaching?
“But he was pierced for our transgressions…”
The Problem with the Analogy
There are some who use similar storytelling to say that substitutionary atonement is unjust. Substitutionary atonement is the idea that Jesus Christ was our substitute, and His sacrifice satisfied our debt of sin against God.
The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and Jesus pays those wages upon the Cross. Those who reject this view of the atonement would use a verse like Proverbs 17:15 to say that such a structure would be unjust.
Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the LORD detests them both.
It’s why when you read the story above, you have a bit of moral revulsion. You know it isn’t right to punish the good son for the guilt of the bad son.
Not to mention that in our story, we were mostly talking about the transfer of financial debt. It gets even more emotionally charged when we start talking about the taking of human life. And even more intense when we begin to talk about eternity.
Another problem with our analogy is that the good son in the story is entirely passive in the whole situation. But what if he volunteered? That certainly helps. But we still come back to the issue of justice.
To say that God poured out His wrath on His innocent Son, who willingly took the place of sinners, is a bit much for some to swallow. No matter if he volunteered or not, it is unjust to punish a righteous man for the guilt of unrighteous people.
After all, do we not say that it was a miscarriage of justice for the crowds to clamor for the guilty and murderous Barabbas, all the while crucifying the perfectly innocent Jesus of Nazareth?
But there is one more thing missing from our analogy. Jesus Christ willingly was “made sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This means that He so united Himself to humanity that it was fitting for him to actually take upon our guilt.
And it was fitting for Him to actually transfer to us His righteous account. It’s both gracious and just. He willingly took our debt upon Himself.
I appreciate the way this is explained in Pierced for Our Transgressions:
“The only way to explain how Christ could have died at all without compromising God’s justice is to say that our sin and guilt was imputed to him. Although Christ was sinless in himself (he bore no guilt for his own deeds), he nonetheless did bear the guilt of our. sins. It is ironic that criticism of penal substitution, which claims to be concerned to uphold God’s justice, actually ends up undermining it.”
It's not “cosmic child abuse,” as some have become fond of saying. There is something entirely different taking place here. The analogy simply doesn’t work. So, what is happening in Isaiah 53:5?
What Is the Context of Isaiah 53:5?
Isaiah 40-55 is written to the post-exilic community. The prophet Isaiah, over 100 years prior, gives hope to a people who would begin to experience the curses of Deuteronomy 28.
If you want to know what that’d be like, read Psalm 88. They were a people who had rebelled and lost all hope. They were under God’s curse because of their rebellion.
But Isaiah 40-55 is about hope. There were two fundamental questions that stood over the exilic community.
First, they asked, “Have we messed up so bad and got ourselves in such a mess that even God cannot get us out of the hand of foreign rulers?”
And secondly, “Has our rebellion been so deep and our sin so treacherous that God will no longer relate to us?”
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is part of God’s answer to that second question. It will be through this Suffering Servant that the Lord will be able to again relate to the people.
Throughout this section, we see a litany of things that the Servant will accomplish on behalf of others — on behalf of “us.”
1. Verse 4: "Surely our griefs He Himself bore."
2. Verse 4: " . . . And our sorrows He carried."
3. Verse 5: "But He was pierced through for our transgressions."
4. Verse 5: "He was crushed for our iniquities."
5. Verse 5: "The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him."
6. Verse 5: "And by His scourging we are healed."
7. Verse 6: "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
8. Verse 8: "[He was] stricken for the transgression of my people."
9. Verse 11: "He will bear their iniquities."
10. Verse 12: "He bore the sin of many."
What, then, does it mean that he was “pierced for our transgressions”?
What Does ‘He Was Pierced for Our Transgressions’ Mean?
Sometimes when reading a Bible verse, it’s helpful to focus a little on each word. Consider that with Isaiah 53:5.
But. This is to bring out the contrast mentioned in verse 3. “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, afflicted.” This means that we looked at him and said, “there is a man who is cursed.” But. It was not for His own sin that He was “cursed.”
He. Who? Just as the Ethiopian eunuch asked in Acts 8? Who is this talking about? And Philip showed him that it was referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.
Was. At some specific time in history. At one climactic event. A once and for all time, when this piercing took place on our behalf.
Pierced. To be hollowed out. To be slain on the battlefield. To suffer on behalf of others. Psalm 69 gives a fitting picture.
For. On behalf of others. It is with purpose. The word could be translated as “because of,” as in saying, “the Ukrainians are suffering because of Putin.” But throughout Isaiah 53, the use of personal pronouns makes it clear that this “for” is “on behalf of.”
Our. Those who are guilty. Those who are the same ones who are under the curse of Deuteronomy 28.
Transgressions. Rebellion. Sin. Missing the mark. All of the stuff that falls in the category of disobedience and causes the curse to fall upon us rather than the blessings of covenant.
What Does This Mean?
What does it mean when you put it all together? It means that Jesus Christ took our place. He took the curse for us. He has paid our debt in full. This is why he cried tetelestai from the Cross.
Through our union with Him and His perfect work, we are debt free and living in His positive righteousness, all by the Father’s good plan and good pleasure. This is great news!
He was pierced because of us and for us.
For further reading:
Is Isaiah 53 'The Suffering Servant' a Prophecy about Jesus?
2 Beautiful Reminders from Our Savior’s Nail-Scarred Hands
Why Did Jesus Use the Same Body After the Cross?
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