Atonement – Jesus Thought He Was Fulfilling Isaiah 53

There has been a certain amount of reaction to yesterday’s post on the atonement. Clearly there are two issues here –
1. Do we accept that Isaiah 53 teaches us about Jesus’ death or is the suffering servant somebody else?
2. If we accept that Isaiah 53 is about Jesus, does it teach Penal Substitution?

The answer to the first question is very straightforward if you believe the bible is without error and Jesus can be trusted. For he himself tells us who the prophet is speaking of –

Luke 22:37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”

So, can we now all accept that Isaiah 53 is about Jesus? Jesus himself might not have had a theological degree, but I do think we should take his exegesis seriously!

The Oxford Bible Commentary cited in the posts of one of my commentators actually begins as follows

“No passage in Isaiah, or indeed the whole Hebrew Bible, has attracted more attention than this the fourth and last of Duhm’s Servant Songs. It is disputed to what extent it was the subject of speculation and interpretation within Judaism before the Common Era. Certainly the portrayal of the servant here was applied to Jesus within the NT, most notably in Acts (cf. 8:32–5) and in 1 Peter (e.g. 2:22), and probably in many other places as well; in view of what we have said in the introduction about the importance of the reader, it would be quite wrong to dismiss such understandings as illegitimate. This is what the Christian reader may well discern in these verses. Characteristically Jewish tradition has given a corporate interpretation to this poem, seeing it as prefiguring the persecution undergone by the Jewish community. Until the last century Christians in general followed the NT in applying it to Jesus. The rise of critical scholarship has led to an enormous variety of suggested ‘identifications’ of the servant…

The picture in these verses is clearly of the death of the servant, and the appropriateness of the NT application to Jesus is clear enough, given the presuppositions of its writers.” Oxford Bible Commentary.

Despite having begun in that way, the commentary continues to argue that the servant could instead have been Israel. Evangelicals ought not to follow such paths. Surely we can all agree on an answer to question 1?

Now, as far as question 2 goes, I simply cannot see how Isaiah 53 can possibly be stripped of the idea of punishement and substitution. Dave Warnock claimed in this comment section to have found commentaries that disagree. He does not quote or explain their arguments. I do not agree that the “but” in verse four can possibly mean that there is a complete change happening in the meaning. If Isaiah had wanted to say Jesus was not actually punished by God this seems a pretty strange way of saying it.

To paraphrase the argument on the other side – it seems that they are claiming Isaiah meant something like this “We considered Jesus to be punished by God and afflicted….but he was almost but not quite punished – he carried our sins but please dont think that meant he was punished be God….” This seems like a very very odd way of reading this passage.

It is much more natural to read it something like this again paraphrasing horribly “We thought he himself was being punished by God because of his own sin, how wrong we were as he was actually punished because of OUR sin, carrying our sin – so everything he experienced he experienced instead of us and it was in fact God’s will and purpose that it should happen”

It is to me an open and shut case. I am as always open for others to explain how this passage can be stripped of any penal element, but so far I just cant see it!

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