Isaiah 53 in the New Testament (the Apostles’ teaching)

Isaiah 53 is consistently used as a proof text for the penal substitution theory of the atonement. Whilst there is no doubt that this chapter contains prophetic echoes of Jesus’ sacrifice, we should not simply assume that we can apply the entire text literally to the events of Golgotha. The litmus test for how to understand Isaiah 53 must come from the New Testament and the Apostles.

Let’s examine all the specific verses from Isaiah 53 which are either utilised or directly quoted in the New Testament.

Note that I am using the Masoretic Text (which best supports penal substitution), even though Jesus and the Apostles used the Septuagint (http://gospelcoalescence.blog-online.org.uk/stricken-by-god/).

Isaiah 53 verses referenced in the New Testament appear here in italics:

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? (John 12:38; Romans 10:16)

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 

3  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 

4  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; (Matthew 8:17) yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 

5  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

6  All we like sheep have gone astray; (1 Peter 2:24-25) we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 

7  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

8  By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, (Acts 8:32-33) stricken for the transgression of my people? 

9  And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)

10  Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 

11  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 

12  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; (Luke 22:37) yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors”. 

 

The penal substitution theory of the atonement is argued consistently from a particular selection of verses from Isaiah 53, namely: that we considered Jesus smitten by God (4b), that the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all (6b), and that it was the will of the LORD to crush him (v10).

What is revelatory is that these pivotal verses used today to explain the gospel are verses that the Apostles simply did not call upon. Not only were these verses not used for their gospel message, these ‘pivotal’ verses don’t appear at all in the New Testament, even in a supporting role.

Neither the Reformers, nor any other theologians down the ages, have the authority to override the Apostles or the witness of the New Testament. It is therefore a little alarming that they should rely so heavily on verses that the Apostles didn’t. This should be cause for concern. Perhaps we ought to heed a little more carefully the actual teaching handed down by the Apostles and learn not to ‘go beyond’ what is written? (1 Cor 4:6)

“For fools speak folly….
and spread error concerning the Lord” (Isaiah 32:6)

“I am the LORD… who overthrows the learning of the wise
and turns it into nonsense” (Isaiah 44:24-25)