Atonement in Scripture: Isaiah 53, Part 2


Matthew’s Quotation of Isaiah 53:4

How did the New Testament understand Isaiah 53?  I will explore Matthew’s use of Isaiah 53:4 in one specific place where he quotes it (Mt.8:17).  Did Matthew understand Isaiah in a way that aligns with penal substitution?  I would argue not.


As Isaiah connected the suffering of the Suffering Servant to sharing in Israel’s exile, so Matthew seems to also want us to understand Jesus of Nazareth as suffering from precisely that.  His introduction using the Davidic genealogy calls attention to the exile, using the phrase ‘deportation to Babylon’:  ‘So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations’ (Mt.1:17).  This genealogy does not include all the literal generations between Abraham and Jesus (compare with the much longer lists in Luke 3 and 1 Chronicles 1 – 8).  Hence we know that Matthew is making a special introduction by selecting these names.  Fourteen was the number that represented David.  Hebrew had no vowel marks at the time, and each letter had a numerical value.  D-V-D was dalet (4) – vav (6) – dalet (4) and had the numerical sum of fourteen.  So Matthew again associates Jesus with David through the number fourteen.  And because of the numerical symmetry of fourteen from the exile to Jesus, we know Matthew’s point:  Jesus is the Son of David who will deliver the true Israel out of exile.


Therefore Jesus had to share in Israel’s exilic suffering.  That had concrete physical, material, emotional, and relational consequences for Jesus.  He was vulnerable from his infancy to the paranoid rage of a brutal dictator, Herod the Great (Mt.2:1 – 20).  He was exposed to the reality of a hostile military occupation.  He and his parents became refugees, running away from targeted religious-political persecution to a foreign country.  Although we know of a sizable Jewish population in Alexandria, Egypt from which they might have received help, Joseph and Mary likely had to beg on the street for a season.  When his family returned to Israel, Jesus had to deal with the consequences of that occupation:  oppressive taxes; a fractured community divided about what to do about the Romans; the fearful and humiliating presence of foreign soldiers who could legally force Jews to carry their gear; disruptive events like the census; etc.  But even so, Jesus retold Israel’s story in his own life, as he too escaped from a ‘genocidal Pharaoh’ and came out of Egypt into the promised land.  He passed through water in his baptism, like Israel went through water in the Red Sea.  He went through a wilderness journey for forty days, like Israel went through a wilderness journey for forty years.  He came to a mountain with followers and delivered new commands.  He lived under the threat of Roman brutality and a factious Israel, trying to unite his people and even show God’s blessings to those Gentiles willing to receive him.  Eventually, like other Jews passionate for Israel’s cause, he was crucified at the hands of the Romans, a victim of a travesty of justice and callous police brutality.


Jesus also shared in King David’s exile and his suffering.  Like David, Jesus was anointed king and yet pursued by the reigning, hostile powers; Jesus cleverly alluded to David’s plight when referring to himself (Mt.12:3 – 4; cf. 1 Sam.21:1 – 9).  Like David, Jesus was chased into remote Gentile areas.  Like David, Jesus had to gather his movement in unofficial, clandestine, and sometimes haphazard and desperate ways while being carefully watched and threatened in certain areas; arguably when Jesus did the two loaves miracles (Mt.14:13 – 22 and 15:29 – 39), he invoked the Davidic numbers 5, 7, and 12 from the incident where David took 5 of the 12 loaves in the tabernacle, leaving 7 behind (1 Sam.21).  Like David, Jesus was exposed to the hostile Gentile powers.  Jesus even interpreted his own death on the Roman cross as an act of paralleling David.  Jesus quoted from David’s Psalm 22 to evoke David’s experience of being forsaken to the Gentiles.  Jesus quoted it to persuade the criminals crucified with him that if David suffered in exile, then the greater Son of David would also suffer in exile (Mt.27:46).  But as the greater David, Jesus’ exposure to the police brutality of the reigning Roman powers was greater.


But on the deepest level, Jesus suffered humanity’s internal condition which made the exile from Eden necessary in the first place.  That is, he shared in the corruption of sin within human nature, the common human condition since the fall.  Jesus really did struggle against the flesh, especially in the wilderness (Mt.4:1 – 11) and at Gethsemane (Mt.26:36 – 75).  Those two episodes bracket his public life and ministry.  I believe that Matthew’s Gospel is one large chiastic structure, and the two episodes are parallel to each other.[1]  But even if one is not inclined to perceive the chiasm and make conclusions based on it, the literary parallels would suffice.  Jesus struggled in three categorical ways during his temptation in the wilderness; he also struggled three times during his temptation in Gethsemane.  Simon Peter and the other disciples succumb to temptation three times in Gethsemane, which serves as a contrast with Jesus’ faithfulness to pray and prepare himself for the trial to come.  In both episodes, Jesus’ identity as Son of the Father is sorely tested.  In both episodes, Jesus’ awareness of his impending death and resurrection is fresh and immediate; in the wilderness, his baptism serves as a foreshadowing of his death, burial, and resurrection; in Gethsemane, his actual death, burial, and resurrection are awaiting him the next day.


This parallel means that Jesus, throughout his life, and even at the Sermon on the Mount, was receiving the Father’s writing of His law on the tablet of his human heart, so that Jesus might be able to share his own heart by his Spirit with others.  He was condemning sin in his own sinful flesh (Rom.8:3), to put to death the old self (Rom.6:6), and produce the heart circumcised by the Spirit (Rom.2:28 – 29), making him out to be the true Israelite, the one restored from exile (Dt.30:6).  Paul understood this act to embody Israel’s true vocation under the law (Rom.7:14 – 8:4).  If Jesus embodied Israel in himself, he therefore embodied that very vocation:  to return his human nature back to God circumcised of heart.  This involved for Jesus an intense suffering which we can only existentially understand through the hardest moments of our own temptations and choices to faithfully grow in obedience with him, by his Spirit.  The author of Hebrews notes, ‘In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.  Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.’ (Heb.5:7 – 8)


This treatment of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is helpful to understanding the immediate context where Matthew quotes Isaiah 53.  Matthew quotes the Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 53:4 in the literary context of paralleling Jesus’ life with the early life of Israel:  hunted by a ruler, escaped from Egypt, passage through water and wilderness, arrival at a mountain, commandments.  That has decisive theological considerations.  The quotation occurs in the context of Jesus performing miraculous healings.  After Jesus heals a leper with a touch (Mt.8:1 – 4), a centurion’s servant (Mt.8:5 – 13), and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Mt.8:14 – 15), Matthew then narrates:


8:16 When evening came, they brought to him many who were demon-possessed; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill. 17 This was to [‘fill to the full’] what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘He himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.’


I have translated the word ‘fulfill’ in Matthew 8:16 as ‘fill to the full’ because it is quite clear that Matthew and the other New Testament writers as a whole understand the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures not merely as piecemeal ‘predictions’ isolated to particular verses from the Hebrew Scriptures, but to entire themes and institutions that are amplified and retold within the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, and then ultimately and decisively by Jesus.


Following the Sermon on the Mount, which are commandments directed towards the human heart in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy (Jer.31:31 – 34), Jesus gives ‘ten commandments’ in Matthew 8:1 – 9:38 by his word.


Structure of Matthew 8:1 – 9:38

Text Subject Beneficiary/


Healing or Teaching topic
8:1 – 4 Miracle 1 Jewish Uncleanness, leprosy
8:5 – 13 Miracle 2 Gentile Illness, suffering
8:14 – 17 Miracle 3 Jewish Fever, demons
8:18 – 22 Teaching 1 Crowd Jesus requires everything from us
8:23 – 27 Miracle 4 Jewish Stormy sea
8:28 – 34 Miracle 5 Gentile Demons
9:1 – 8 Miracle 6 Jewish Paralysis
9:9 – 17 Teaching 2 Disciples, Pharisees Jesus has come for sinners
9:18 – 26 Miracles 7 & 8 Jewish Uncleanness, death
9:27 – 31 Miracle 9 Jewish Blindness
9:32 – 34 Miracle 10 Jewish Mute, demons
9:35 – 38 Teaching 3 Disciples Laborers for harvest!


Matthew is clearly grouping these miracles together to present a sustained reflection on the Sermon on the Mount.  The two sections in Matthew, 5:1 – 7:28 and 8:1 – 9:38, are mutually interpreting.  That is, the heart commandments and the verbal-healing commands are literary reflections on each other.  The identity of Christ is played up in a vigorously Jewish way:  Jesus is God, giving a new ‘ten commandments.’


But there is more regarding the nature of salvation and atonement itself.  Matthew begins his Gospel by speaking of Jesus saving ‘his people from their sins’ (Mt.1:21).  Not their punishment, which is already unfolding through the exile, but their sins.  Matthew is saying that Jesus shares in the diseased human nature of all humanity.  He shows this through Jesus’ baptism, in that Jesus confesses sin through his baptism:  not sins of action or thought that he had actually committed, but the sinfulness of his flesh (Mt.3:13 – 17).  His wilderness temptation and trial reflects his struggle against the sinfulness in his flesh (Mt.4:1 – 11), otherwise, there would be no temptation or struggle at all.  But whereas at Mount Sinai, God had discourse with Moses alone, when Jesus speaks from the top of a mountain, giving the Sermon on the Mount, he is opening up face to face contact with Israel, represented by his disciples.  And this is further portrayed as Matthew as a ‘ten commandments’ delivering people from diseases and demons.


Matthew begins this section of the ten word-miracles with the phrase ‘stretched out his hand’ (Mt.8:3).  That is a Jewish way of describing the power of God.  It referred to God delivering Israel out of Egypt.  Long ago, God said, ‘So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that [Pharaoh] will let you go’ (Ex.3:20; 7:5; etc. culminating in 15:12), and this was mirrored anthropomorphically by Aaron and Moses stretching out their hands to signal God performing the miracles through them (Ex.7:19; 8:5, 6, 17; etc.).  Psalm 136 recounts God’s love for Israel and says of the Exodus, ‘With a strong hand and an outstretched arm’ (Ps.136:12).  David generalizes this phrase:  ‘You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand will save me’ (Ps.138:7).  Here we see the full character of God’s outstretched hand.  It is Jesus’ hand, reaching out to deliver a man from leprosy.  The phrase is a trigger, helping a Jewish reader think of God’s mighty Exodus deliverance through the ten plagues.


So when we read this little phrase, ‘Jesus stretched out his hand’ (Mt.8:3), we must understand that phrase to be not just an act of kindness towards the leper, though it is at least that.  It is certainly not a throwaway gesture or comment.  It is also a significant literary marker calling for our attention.  Jesus is about to demonstrate power unlike anything we have ever seen, power that will rival and surpass what was demonstrated in the Exodus.  Now God in Jesus, by stretching out his hand, is liberating people from disease, demons, and death.  These acts are outward pictures of Jesus liberating people from the even deeper problem of human sin, evil, and separation from God.  Jesus is restoring humanity to what God meant us to be.  The three lessons on discipleship woven into the ten miracles suggest that Jesus’ call for disciples to follow him should be understood as his way of healing us.


Also, Matthew condenses his narration of these miracle stories to highlight Jesus’ word.  For example, in the demoniac story in Mark, Jesus engages in a longer process of exorcism through repeated questions and commands (Mk.5:8 – 9).  But in Matthew, Jesus says one word, ‘Begone!’ and expels the demons into the pigs.  Similarly, in both Mark and Luke, the hemorrhaging woman touches Jesus’ cloak and then tries to hide in the crowd.  But in Matthew, there is no touch; Jesus simply turns around and speaks, and heals her (Mt.9:22).  Hebrew biblical narrative and common sense allow a narrator to leave out information, but not to make up anything (Meir Sternberg, Poetics of Biblical Narrative).  Rest assured, Mark and Luke would heartily agree with Matthew’s emphasis:  Jesus heals by his word.


Furthermore, Matthew seems to group these miracles together in a way that is not strictly chronological.  Mark and Luke record these miracles as well, but spread them out in different places in Jesus’ ministry, and sometimes in a different order from Matthew.  I believe Matthew does this to highlight a parallel between Jesus’ ten miracles and other sequences of ten utterances from God.  Matthew is clearly aware that there is already a pre-existing pattern around the number ten concerning God’s activities in the history of Israel.  Here is that pattern:


Scripture Ten acts leading up to a new work of God
Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 Ten declarations of Creation; God forms all life
Genesis 5:1 – 6:8 Ten generations from Adam to Noah, new creation
Genesis 11:10 – 30 Ten generations from Shem to Abram, new humanity
Genesis 2:4 – 50:26 Ten genealogies of Israel; God forms the nation Israel
Exodus 7 – 11 Ten plagues; God un-creates Egypt to free Israel
Exodus 19 – 20 Ten commands; God makes the Sinai covenant, forms new nation
Matthew 8 – 9 Ten word miracles; Jesus heals people and makes a new humanity


In effect, Matthew’s parallel extends to even before the Exodus and the Ten Commandments.  That is because the Ten Commandments and the ten plagues from Exodus were already referring to the ten declarations in the Genesis creation narrative (Gen.1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28).  God was making Israel into his new humanity, who lived in a garden land like the original humanity.  Ten utterances from God bring forth new life; they inaugurate a covenant; they set free and liberate; they order and declare.  They demonstrate God’s power to do all these things.  Thus, when we listen to Jesus’ teaching on our hearts, we must receive his word with the understanding that his word contains his power to change us.  Jesus brings forth new life in us; he liberates us from our own sinfulness; his word orders and declares a new spiritual reality in human nature.  This is possible because Jesus himself is touching corrupted human nature in his own person.  His healing of the leper, the paralytic, etc. are external pictures of a singular, deeper, internal reality at work within the person of Jesus.  As the Chalcedonian Definition states, Jesus is two natures in one person, with the divine nature healing the human.


Tentative Conclusion #1

It is puzzling for penal substitution advocates to claim that Isaiah 53 supports them, because Matthew himself does not understand Isaiah 53 that way when he explicitly quotes it.  He does not quote it in a legal-penal context, but in a healing-ontological context, and in a literary unit that asks us to situate Isaiah 53 itself in the framework of ontological substitution (the heart of Christus Victor), not penal substitution.  My very brief argument does not decisively prove that the rest of Matthew’s Gospel would weigh against penal substitution.  Much more would need to be written on that.  However, suffice to say here that the punishment Jesus took onto himself, as described by Isaiah, was Israel’s exile, which was already unfolding.  It was a punishment or chastisement that he did not deserve relative to himself, of course.  But neither was it a punishment or chastisement which he deflected from Israel.


Jesus shared in Israel’s exile, so that he could share with them his restoration from exile.  Isaiah and Matthew would seem to agree with that statement.  This statement is symmetrical, not coincidentally, with the patristic saying that he shared in our corrupted humanity, so that he could share with us his new humanity.  For the latter is the deeper explanation of the former.



[1] Mako A. Nagasawa, The Chiastic Structure of the Gospel of Matthew,


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