|By His Wounds We Are healed|
By Pastor Conrad Mbewe
The verse that is perhaps quoted the most when Christians here in Africa are praying for physical healing is Isaiah 53:5. Therefore, it may come as a surprise to many if they discovered that when Isaiah wrote those words he did not have physical healing in mind. I posit, therefore, that it is wrong for us to quote this verse when imploring God to heal Christians who are suffering from physical infirmities.
Before I share further on this matter, let me be quick to state that I believe in miracles—even miraculous healing. I believe that in answer to the prayers of God’s people, there are times when God may heal those for whom we are praying—and he may do so miraculously. So, can those guns that have been cocked be placed back into the holsters? I am a friend and not a foe.
However, what I am saying is that it is morally wrong to take someone else’s words and make them say what he was not saying just because there is some semblance in the words that he has used. As I hope to show you, Isaiah was certainly not saying that physical healing was included in Christ’s atonement.
Okay, so where do I get the impression that Isaiah did not have physical healing in mind when he wrote, “By his stripes [or wounds] we are healed”? This is a blog post and not a book or an article in a theological journal. So, I will not be exhaustive. All I want to do is to give pointers for discussion purposes. Here are three lines of thought for your consideration.
The type of literature
Firstly, from the type of literature (Hebrew poetry), we know that there is a close relationship between what we read in the first line and second line of each verse. It is called Hebrew parallelism. Although the parallels sometimes get rather complex, with a little closer observation you soon see them. Also, sometimes the parallels are synthetic, but sometimes they are antithetic. It is very easy to see the parallels in Isaiah 53.1-5.
1. Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? “Who has believed what he has heard from us?” is the same as “To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” In other words, what enables people to have faith in what they hear from God's servants is God’s active and immediate self-disclosure to those individuals.
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;
Again, “For he grew up before him like a young plant” is the same as “[He grew up] like a root out of dry ground.” In other words, Jesus grew up in a hostile environment and had nothing in himself to protect him from this hostility.
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
In the same way, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him” is the same as “[He had] no beauty that we should desire him.” In other words, as far as his outward appearance goes, there was nothing about Jesus to make him stand out as a great leader worth following. You will notice from my interpretations of these verses that each time the second line simply restates what the previous line stated, but simply adds a different angle in order to bring in depth of meaning. You can continue seeing the parallel in the remaining verses, but let us proceed to verse 5.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
“He was pierced for our transgressions” is the same as “he was crushed for our iniquities.” In other words, the physical suffering he underwent was in order to atone for our sins. And finally,
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
“Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,” should be the same as “with his wounds we are healed.” In other words, the physical suffering he underwent was in order to cure the breach in our relationship with God. It was meant to bring about spiritual restoration!
The use of the word “heal”
The second line of argument is in the use of the word “heal” in the writings of the prophets. Prophets often used concrete words in describing something spiritual. They would often accuse Israel of prostitution when they were really referring to idolatry. If you miss this key you can get into seriously troubled waters. Thus, the prophets often used the word “heal” to refer to spiritual restoration. The context is what would enable you to know the sense in which the word is being used.
For instance, Jeremiah wrote, “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness” (Jeremiah 3:22). This is clearly referring to spiritual restoration. Another obvious example is when Hosea wrote, “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (Hosea 14:4). Again, the healing here is referring to spiritual restoration. So, it is wrong to see the word “heal” in the prophetic writings and immediately conclude that it must be referring to physical healing. Let the context determine the meaning!
The inspired interpretation
The third, and final, line of thought is the inspired interpretation of this text. Thankfully, the apostle Peter quoted Isaiah 53:5. Reading the context of the verse, it is clear that Peter understood Isaiah as referring to spiritual restoration, and not physical healing, when he quoted Isaiah. Here is the passage:
Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25). Need I say any more?
What about “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases”?
One of my greatest disappointment while studying at university in the early 1980s was to read in an otherwise credible Bible Commentary the author commenting on Isaiah 53:4 or Matthew 8:17 (I forget which one it was) that, in the light of this verse, physical healing was included in the atonement!
I was a very young Christian then, but had already been taught the basic tools of Bible study. I could not see how either of those verses had anything to do with the death of Christ. In fact, 30 years later, my position has not changed. Isaiah 53:4 is not about the cross! Let me explain.
What you have in Isaiah, from 52:13 to 53:12 is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah 52:13-15 is an introductory summary statement. Then in 53:1 onwards, Isaiah begins to narrate the birth, life, suffering, trial, death, burial, resurrection, and final victory. Once we are clear about this, then we cannot miss what Isaiah was saying in 53:4.
When Isaiah says, "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted", all he is saying is that during the life of Jesus he was a man full of good deeds (see Acts 10:38). He went about healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, etc., and so we should have all been convinced that he was a good man. Yet, when things turned sour on him and he was arrested, taken through a mock trial, scourged, and finally crucified, we concluded that it was God punishing him for his sins. We considered him stricken by God.
Isaiah goes on to say that this conclusion cannot be right. We have the evidence that he was a good man. So, how do we explain his suffering and subsequent death? Listen to the next verse! "But he was pierced for OUR transgressions, he was crushed for OUR iniquities..." all the way to the end of verse 6 when he wrote, "...and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all." In other words, the explanation of Jesus suffering and death lies in the word SUBSTITUTION.
So, the first part of verse 4 ("Surely, he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows") is not about Jesus on the cross but about Jesus up and about across Galilee helping to relieve the physical burdens that were crushing the people--including healing their physical diseases.
The final proof that this argument is true is found in an inspired interpretation of Isaiah 53:4. Thankfully, Matthew quoted this text. Did he quote it to describe Jesus' death on the cross or Jesus deeds of love when he was still full of life? Matthew 8:16-17 reads, "When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: 'He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.'"
I rest my case!