Atonement in Isaiah

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At the heart of Isaiah’s message is the promise that God will deal with the problem of evil, sin, rebellion and idolatry in a way that enables him to be reconciled to his people, to bring about new life and indeed a new creation. 

Exile can be seen as a form of death, so that when Adam and Eve are punished with death, it is first expressed as exile from Eden whilst retribution for the death of Abel means that Cain is exiled from the land.  Israel are therefore offered life and blessing in the land if they obey God or death and curse if they sin.  This curse or death is characterised by exile to Assyria, Babylon and Persia. The nation dies.  The return may therefore be seen as a form of resurrection and so, Isaiah 35 portrays this new life as blossom springing up to greet the returning exiles as the cross the desert.

Isaiah 40:1-2 tells us that the price or penalty for Jerusalem’s sin is paid, twice over and this is why God is able to speak words of comfort to the city.  Something has happened that has changed the situation on the ground.  The question remains as to by who and by how this price is paid. 

Isaiah 53 offers the fullest account of atonement in the Old Testament.  Contemporary theologians debate the nature of atonement and whether or not Christ’s death was primarily a demonstration of love, example to follow or surprising victory over evil.  We can see all of those themes at work in Jesus’ death but often theologians have excluded the crucial and central theme, the one we find here in this chapter.

In Isaiah 53, we are introduced to one who suffers horribly. He is mocked, beaten, wounded, crushed.  However Isaiah wishes to emphasise the following:

  • That he is innocent but suffers (“pierced” and “bruised”) on behalf of us.  We are healed, or forgiven through his wounds (v4-6).
  • That it is God’s purpose and will to crush him.  The emphasis is not on God taking delight in violence but that the Father is active in bringing the effects of judgement on The Son.  The son is broken (v10a). 
  • That the consequences are that many receive righteousness (are justified) through this one’s obedient act and are adopted into the saviour’s family (v10b-11).

In other words, Isaiah 53 points pretty explicitly to two related, crucial an often neglected doctrines. It points to Penal Substitutionary atonement.

  • Penal:  There is punishment, a penalty is paid.
  • Substitutionary:  Someone (Christ) steps in to receive that penalty on behalf of others (us).
  • Atonement:  We are reconciled to God (at-one-ment).

We also see the flow of the transaction the other way. If Christ takes on my guilt, shame, judgement and shame, then I receive his righteousness so that I am justified by faith. 

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